Have we been too busy panicking about sugar to think about salt? While some food companies are trying to shrink our salt intake by putting less in their products, others are finding reasons to dump more salt in our arteries.
After a recent survey of 28,000 food products, researchers at Sydney's George Institute for Global Health recently found salt levels had increased, on average, by nine per cent between 2008 and 2011. And just in case we're not salty enough, the coffee chain Gloria Jean's has added salted caramel latte to its menu.
If you're paying attention to the cooking pages you'll know that salted caramel is the flavour du jour - as in, for example, Nigella Lawson's famous sweet and salty crunchy nut bars, which are made of salted peanuts and crushed Crunchie bars stuck together with melted chocolate and golden syrup.
Yes, I know our taste buds need a treat now and again, but we also need to give our arteries a break. Salt overload is bad news for arteries because it causes blood vessels to retain more fluid in order to balance the salt concentration in our blood. This boosts the volume of blood in the arteries, causing high blood pressure - which over time can damage arteries, leading to heart attack and stroke.
Yet even some young children are overdosing on salt, says a researcher at Deakin University, Carley Grimes, who recently checked the levels of salt in the urine of a group of five- to 13-year-olds as part of the Salt and Other Nutrient Intakes in Children study.
''The results showed that these children were having an average of six grams of salt a day. This is high - six grams is the maximum daily limit set for adults and much higher than the maximum daily limit for four- to eight-year-olds, which is 3.5 grams,'' says Grimes, who is from the University's Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research. ''One child's levels were very high - the equivalent of 18 grams of salt and three times the maximum adult level.''
Whether this translates into kids with high blood pressure isn't clear yet - that's the next step in the study. ''But there's evidence that reducing salt intake reduces blood pressure in children,'' Grimes says. ''If you can keep blood pressure at a healthy level, you're giving children a good start.''
So where is all this salt coming from? Research based on the 2007 Australian National Children's Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey suggests that breads and breakfast cereals are the main foods, followed by processed meat, savoury sauces - including cook-in sauces - condiments and snack foods.
One way to decrease this salt load is to scan the label for foods with less sodium (salt consists of both sodium and chloride and it's the sodium in salt that can be a problem).
But it may be that sodium isn't as high on parents' radar as sugar. Earlier this year a survey of almost 12,000 parents and carers visiting the Wiggles website found that checking food's sugar content was the priority for most of them when shopping for their children. Sodium didn't get a mention.
Here's a guide to rating a product's salt content when you read the nutrition panel: 120 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams = low; 120 milligrams to 600 milligrams sodium = moderate; more than 600 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams = high. These numbers help when you compare labels, especially in the bread and breakfast food aisles.
Other ways to trim children's salt intake? Along with putting fruit in lunch boxes instead of salty snack foods, avoid cook-in sauces and processed meats such as ham, Grimes says.
''Lean roast chicken is a healthier sandwich filling and has less salt,'' she says. ''You can also reduce the salt in a sandwich if you choose a cheese with a lower salt level - and skip the ham.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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