Four ways Hongkongers can reduce the salt in their diets, and why we need to

Eating too much salt increases the risk of becoming obese, having a stroke or suffering from heart disease, hypertension, and kidney problems. Here’s how to have a less salty diet

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 June, 2017, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 June, 2017, 5:31pm

While governments, retailers and even restaurants can advise us about the importance of maintaining healthy eating habits, at the end of the day the responsibility for doing so lies with us. Despite the World Health Organisation warning that processed meats, luncheon meat and sausages contain carcinogens, they remain popular daily choices for many Hongkongers. Now we’ve also been warned their salt content is high.Earlier this month, the Consumer Council said it had found high levels of salt in luncheon meat and sausages, having tested 33 samples of locally sold brands and found that 80 per cent exceeded the standard (sodium content of more than 600 milligrams per 100 grams is considered high) used by the UK’s Food Standards Agency.

High sodium content found in popular luncheon meat, canned sausages, Hong Kong watchdog warns consumers

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends adults consume a maximum of 5 grams of salt daily (equivalent to one teaspoon, or to 2,300 mg of sodium); the limit for children is lower. The average Hongkonger consumes about 10 grams of salt a day – twice the amount recommended by the WHO – according to two studies by universities in the city. WHO members have committed to reducing salt intake by 30 per cent by 2025.

Although the body has the ability to regulate sodium levels, if we consistently consume too much salt it can be bad for our health.

People who eat out often are more likely to consume too much salt – which, over time, may increase their risk of suffering from obesity, coronary heart disease, and kidney problems, and of having a stroke, according to the Hong Kong Consumer Council’s research committee.

High salt intake has long been a problem in Hong Kong. Surveys conducted by the Census and Statistics Department show that the proportion of the population with known hypertension increased from 9.3 per cent in 2008 to 12.6 per cent in 2014. Reducing salt in our diets has been recognised by the WHO as one of the most effective ways to lower high blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

While most people need to reduce their salt intake, cutting sodium out of your diet completely is unwise. The body needs sodium to maintain cellular and muscular functions and balance blood pressure.

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Many people assume that sea salt is healthier than table salt. The differences between the two lie in the way they are processed, their texture and taste. Sea salt is usually created with very little processing (it’s normally evaporated seawater). Sea salt contains different minerals and elements that are specific to the region from which it was harvested. While some people suggest that these minerals – which may include magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc and iodine – convey health benefits, the trace amounts present may not be that beneficial.

Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety says sauces and condiments are the major sources of sodium for Hongkongers. It is estimated that the foods in Hong Kong highest in salt are condiments and sauces (44 per cent), followed by soups (14 per cent), processed meats (8 per cent), bread (6 per cent), dim sum (6 per cent) and siu mei/lo mei (4 per cent).

Thus a bowl of instant noodles in soup with luncheon meat, egg and chilli sauce will contain between 2,000 and 2,500mg of sodium – almost equal to, or exceeding, the maximum daily intake recommended by the WHO.

Four ways to lower your sodium intake

Replace salt and seasonings with herbs and spices

Choosing to eat less salty food doesn’t mean losing out on flavour. Human taste buds are not sensitive enough to notice a minor reduction in salt; many types of food won’t taste noticeably different if their salt content is reduced by 30 per cent.

Try replacing salt and high-sodium seasonings and sauces (such as shrimp paste, salted black beans, chicken powder, oyster sauce) with natural spices such as garlic, chilli, ginger, spring onions, five spice powder, ground pepper, lemon juice, onions, and curry powder. You can also cook with herbs.

Take a closer look at food labels

Most of our salt comes from processed, pre-packaged foods such as crackers, cheese, canned foods, breakfast cereals, and restaurant food. Even processed foods that do not taste “salty”, such as breakfast cereal, can contain surprisingly high amounts of sodium.

In Hong Kong, under the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labeling) Regulation, pre-packaged food marketed as “low sodium”, “very low sodium”, or “sodium-free” must contain no more than 120 milligrams, 40 milligrams, or 5 milligrams of sodium respectively per 100 grams of food. Compare nutrition labels when buying everyday items. You can easily cut your sodium intake by reading labels and choosing the pizza, sauce or breakfast cereal that is lower in sodium.

Where possible, avoid too much processed food such as preserved fish, vegetables, meat, ham and sausages, salty snacks, and instant noodles.

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Request less sauce

The convenience and accessibility of various fast food outlets provide plenty of tempting opportunities for busy Hongkongers. Try to limit your consumption of high sodium foods served at local cha chaan teng; if you cannot avoid them, then steer away from dishes containing ingredients with high salt content such as pickles, salted fish and preserved sausages.

Next time you’re ordering a takeaway, you can request that little or no sauce be added to your dish, and check whether less salty options are available. Refrain from adding any unnecessary salt to “nourishing” Chinese soup to enjoy its natural flavour.

Portion control

There is no need to eliminate your favourite high-sodium foods, whether traditional Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce or oyster sauce, Japanese salted pickles and fish or Greek feta cheese and olives, from your diet. Instead, simply enjoy them in smaller quantities.

Salt preference is an acquired taste that can be unlearned. It usually takes about six to eight weeks to get used to eating food containing less salt but, once you are used to it, you might be surprised to find that your next bag of potato chips tastes too salty.

Michelle Lau is a certified nutritionist and nutrition educator, and the founder of Nutrilicious (facebook.com/nutriliciousss), a Hong Kong-based nutrition consultancy company.