How salt affects your health

Much of our processed food contains high levels of salt – something Australians don’t need any more of, given many of us already consume more than the recommended amount. High salt intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, so find out where salt is hiding in your diet.

Salt versus sodium

Salt is also known by its chemical name sodium chloride. Sodium makes up 40 per cent of the weight of salt and is the component that makes it bad for our health. That’s why health advice focusses on measuring how much sodium there is in foods.

Recommended amounts of sodium

The current recommendations for Australian adults in the Dietary Guidelines 2013 (which were updated in July 2019) are to keep dietary sodium below 2300 milligrams per day – the same amount as in one-and-a-half teaspoons of salt. But for the Australian adult population to lower risk of chronic disease, the suggested dietary target (SDT) is below 2000 mg sodium per day. The World Health Organization also recommends a reduction to less than 2000 mg sodium per day, which is 5 g of salt/day.

Australians currently have a sodium intake of about 3600 mg/day, way above all the guidelines.

Reading food labels

Look for “sodium” on food labels, including on the Daily Intake Guide labels. These front-of-pack labels tell you the percentage of your daily sodium allowance contained in a serving.

Australia sets levels for “low-sodium” foods only.

  • Low – 120 mg sodium or less per 100 g

If you want to convert milligrams (mg) of sodium into grams of salt, multiply the sodium figure in milligrams by 2.5 and divide by 1000. This will give you the salt in grams.

Sources of sodium in the Australian diet

Bread

Bread is a major source of dietary salt for many Australians. One slice of sourdough bread may contain as much as 580 mg sodium, way more than the 300 mg average found in a 50g packet of potato crisps.

Breakfast cereals

Some breakfast cereals, such as cornflakes, are hiding around 550 mg sodium per 100 g which puts them in a high-sodium category. Plain porridge is a healthy breakfast option with the only salt being what you add yourself. Muesli is often another low-sodium option.

Stock cubes, stock and bouillon

Just one stock cube can contain between 600 and 1000 mg sodium. Liquid stocks can be even worse with an average of 1300 mg of sodium in a cup of vegetable stock.

Low-salt or reduced-salt stock powders are available, or you can use fresh garlic, ginger, herbs and spices to give flavour in your cooking.

Soups

Ready-made tinned soups get much of their flavour from sodium. Home-made soups that use herbs and garlic for flavour are a much healthier alternative. Most Australian manufacturers of ready-made soups voluntarily agreed to a target of no more than 300 mg sodium per 100 g of soup.

Pizza

Most takeaway pizzas in Australia are overloaded with salt, with two-thirds containing double the recommended daily salt allowance for an adult. Meatlovers pizzas have the worst salt content.

To reduce sodium, choose vegetarian, seafood or chicken options and buy from the store as most store-bought pizzas seem to have less salt than takeaway ones, but be aware that 94 per cent of all pizzas still provide more than the 1600 mg suggested dietary target of sodium for adults per pizza. Then again, you could make your own – and you can control the salt.

Cheese

Surprisingly, many cheeses are in the medium or high-sodium bands. A cup of low-fat cottage cheese can hide nearly 1000 mg of sodium. A 30 g slice of cheddar can contain 200 mg sodium. Feta cheese is high sodium, concealing around 1100 mg sodium per 100g.

Look for cheeses with lower sodium content such as soft goat cheese, swiss cheese and whole-milk mozzarella.

Pasta sauces

Many pasta sauces are in the medium-sodium band. An average jar of tomato-based pasta sauce can contain 300 mg sodium per 100 g. A 350 g jar can have 800-1000 mg sodium in total. When you move onto bolognese sauces with beef, the sodium content can jump to 2300 mg in a small can and one brand had 3300 mg sodium in a 575 mg jar. The key is to read labels.

Sauces and condiments

Even though you may use only small amounts of sauces and condiments, their high sodium content can quickly boost your daily total. Both soy and teriyaki sauces are very high sodium: soy sauce has a staggering 1200 mg per tablespoon and teriyaki has 1000 mg sodium per tablespoon.

Sweet chilli sauce has 330 mg sodium per tablespoon. Tomato ketchup has 270 mg sodium per tablespoon. Tomato relish has 180 mg sodium per tablespoon. Barbecue sauce has 160 mg sodium per tablespoon.

A teaspoon of Dijon or wholegrain mustard can have 100 mg sodium, a tablespoon of American mustard 140 mg sodium.

Read labels and look for those labelled reduced salt or reduced sodium.

Salad dressings and mayonnaise

Prepared salad dressings can be high in sodium, e.g. a tablespoon of reduced fat French dressing can pack 260 mg sodium and one of mustard vinaigrette 240 mg sodium. Fat-free mayonnaise can contain 150 mg sodium per tablespoon and traditional egg mayonnaise 246 mg sodium in a tablespoon. For a lower-sodium alternative, make your own salad dressings with olive oil and vinegar.

Canned vegetables and pulses

Canned vegetables and pulses are a convenient substitute for fresh vegetables and dried pulses and are packed with fibre and nutrients. Some are high in sodium but you can usually improve the situation by draining and washing them before use to remove any excess sodium.

Also look for “no added salt” or “low sodium” versions where possible.

Ready meals

Ready meals, such as those bought from the supermarket, often use high levels of salt and saturated fat to provide flavour. Even those labelled “healthy option” can still have very high sodium. The only way to really know is to read the label.

Fast food

Generally, takeaway and fast food is high in sodium. Just a cheeseburger and fries could add up to a whopping 1600 mg sodium, which is the entire daily dietary target for an adult. Even a large milk shake can add 250 mg sodium which is nearly as much as a packet of crisps.

Biscuits and crackers

You would expect crisps, pretzels and cheese puffs to have high sodium, but many baked goods, such as biscuits and crackers, contain high sodium too. One digestive biscuit has 90 mg sodium – equivalent to 600 mg sodium per 100g, making them a high-sodium food.

Processed meats

Not surprisingly, processed meats, such as salami, sausages, packaged ham, pepperoni and bacon are high in sodium, but what is shocking is how much sodium they contain:

  • One rasher of middle bacon – 700 mg sodium (nearly half the adult daily target);
  • One supermarket sausage – 450-700 mg sodium;
  • Salami (1 serving) – 450 mg sodium.

Look for low-salt versions or eat fresh meat, which is low in sodium.

Last Reviewed: 11/03/2020

myDr



References

1. National Health and Medical Research Council (2013). Australian dietary guidelines. Publication date: 1 February 2013. Last updated 15 July 2019. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
(accessed Feb 2020)
2. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. NHMRC. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. BRIEF: Revised Sodium Nutrient Reference Values (2017). (accessed Feb 2020). https://www.nrv.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/resources/17122%20NHMRC%20NRV%20Update-Changes%20in%20sodium%20NRVs-final.pdf
3. World Health Organization. 2012. Sodium intake for adults and children. Guideline. https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/guidelines/sodium_intake/en/
4. AWASH (Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health). www.awash.org.au
5. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Sodium levels in a range of packaged and take-away foods (20 May 2013). www.foodstandards.gov.au (accessed Feb 2020). https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/Pages/sodiumlevelsinarange4648.aspx