More than a pinch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2007, 12:00am

We're born with a liking for salty foods, but, some of us like salt more than others.

A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2005 found that individual differences may be related to how much a person weighs when they are born.

Eighty healthy babies weighing at least 2.5kg at birth were fed separate bottles of plain and salty water. Results showed that lighter infants preferred salty water than those who weighed more at birth.

A preference for salty foods that stems from a young age has implications for future health. High amounts of salt have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke and heart disease.

A team of researchers from Boston found that people who reduced the amount of salt in their diet could reduce their chances of developing cardiovascular disease by a quarter.

A study that was published in the British Medical Journal last month found that people who cut down on the amount of salt they eat could lower their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by up to 20 per cent.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) forum on reducing salt intake in populations, the world's food is still far too salty and too many countries continue to ignore the WHO's guidelines on what should be a healthy daily level of salt.

To prevent chronic diseases, the WHO recommends a daily target of less than five grams of salt a day. This is equivalent to two grams of sodium or one teaspoon of salt.

Some countries have developed their own targets for salt. In Hong Kong and the UK, it's less than six grams per day, while Japan sets their national target higher - no more than 10 grams a day.

According to a survey by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, Hong Kong people eat three times as much sodium five to six grams as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Why do we need salt?

Historically, salt was a highly valued commodity. In ancient Greece, it was used as currency for trading slaves. Salt was widely used to preserve foods such as meat, fish and vegetables.

The chemical name for salt is sodium chloride. Salt is made up of 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride.

Sodium plays an important role in the functioning of our body. It helps to control the amount of water in the body, helps our muscles to contract and helps to transmit nerve impulses or signals throughout our body.

Where does sodium come from?

Processed food and food prepared outside the home are the major sources of sodium in a westernised diet.

In Hong Kong, eating out is popular, particularly at lunch. The 2006 survey conducted by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department analysed 107 different types of congee, rice and noodle dishes from a variety of food outlets including local tea houses, fast food and Chinese restaurants. It found that more than two-third of the meals exceeded the national salt target.

How can you eat less?

- Buy reduced sodium foods - look at food labels (below)

- Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables

- Season food with herbs, spices and lemon juice

- Don't add salt or MSG when you're cooking rice, pasta or vegetables

- Go easy on processed food and sauces, e.g. crisps, salty snacks, canned, cured and processed meats, pickles, tomato ketchup, soy sauce

Label know-how

Watch out for these terms on a food label. If these feature on an ingredient label, then the food contains sodium

Baking soda - Salt or NaCl

Baking powder - Sodium caseinate

Brine - Sodium nitrate

Monosodium glutamate - Sodium propionate