Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a first-of-its-kind report warning that the world is off track to achieving its target of reducing sodium intake.
Table salt (refined salt) is considered as the main source of sodium (sodium chloride), which is responsible for high sodium in the body.
As per the WHO report, India ranks 36 out of 193 countries in terms of high salt intake.
“The global average sodium intake is estimated to be 4,310 mg/per day (10.78 g of salt per day), which far exceeds the physiological requirement which has to be less than 2,000 mg of sodium, equivalent to 5 g of salt per day in adults,” says the WHO report.
Deciphering this, Dr Pradeep, consultant physician at HOSMAT Hospital in Bengaluru, explains, “The Ideal amount is one teaspoon per day, which amounts to about 2,300 mg per day. Reducing salt intake has been identified as one of the most cost-effective measures countries can take to improve population health outcomes.”
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the top 10 sources of sodium in our diet include breads/rolls, pizzas, sandwiches, cold cuts/cured meats, soups, burritos, tacos, savory snacks (chips, popcorn, crackers) and cheese.
How much salt is too much?
All the doctors South First spoke to unanimously put the cut-off mark at just one teaspoon of salt per day.
Consultant Neurologist Dr Sudhir Kumar of Apollo Hospitals in Hyderabad warns: “Anyone consuming more than five grams, or one teaspoon, of salt per day is consuming more than what is recommended. And not just the quantity of salt, the salt that is consumed should be “iodized” salt (fortified with iodine) to optimise brain and mental development in foetuses, children, and everyone in general.”
However, in India, people like their food to be more spicy and salty, say doctors.
“Most people consume too much salt — about 9-12 grams per day. This is twice the recommended maximum level of intake. Along with this salt, there is also added salt that is present in commercially prepared food,” explains Dr Pradeep.
What happens if you eat too much salt?
It is proven that consuming excess salt increases the risk of blood pressure. The body continuously struggles to maintain water balance. The overconsumption of sodium can damage the walls of your blood vessels, putting you at risk of developing high blood pressure or hypertension.
“High blood pressure is a common factor for heart attacks and stroke, which are the two most common causes of death. This means that consuming too much salt would reduce the lifespan of a person,” says Dr Sudhir Kumar.
Adding to this, Dr Rohan Krishna, former president of the Federation of All India Medical Association (FAIMA), told South First that consuming more than one teaspoon of salt per day will not only lead to hypertension, heart attack, and stroke, but also cause renal problems and kidney damage.
So which type of salt is good?
While doctors warn that excess of any type of salt is dangerous to one’s health, Dr Pradeep explains that finely ground salt is dense and, hence, contains more sodium than coarser salts.
“Sodium content can vary among different brands and, hence, it is important to check the nutritional label for exact amounts,” he adds.
Interestingly, Dr Pradeep opines that most of the salt in our diets comes from commercially prepared food, not from salt added while cooking at home or even from salt added at the table before eating.
Iodized salt is recommended for cooking purposes. This is the salt that is extracted from the sea or salt mines, which undergoes processing before it is sold.
Iodine is added to this as lack of iodine in the body can lead to brain damage.
There are two other varieties of salt that are used as an alternatives in Indian homes — rock salt and black salt, which doctors say are better than table salt.
What about Himalayan pink salt?
Beyond the above mentioned types of salts, there are other varieties of salt available in the market. Dr Vivek Jawali, a cardiologist at Fortis Hospitals in Bengaluru, says that Indian kitchens mostly use pink salt, commonly known as rock salt or saindhava lavana in Karnataka.
Dr Jawali explains: “Salt substitute made from potassium chloride alone tastes like salt with salty flavour, but has zero sodium.” However, people complain that these substitutes of salt often leave a bitter or metallic aftertaste and thus they prefer regular salt.
Cardiologists, however, say that potassium is an important mineral for heart health and a quarter teaspoon of this substitute serves around 20 percent of one’s daily potassium requirement.
But for those who have kidney problems or are under any medication, it is ideal to consult a doctor. This salt is naturally extracted and not chemically processed.
Ramya HN, a dietitian from Bengaluru says, “One teaspoon of table salt has up to 2.3g of sodium, but one teaspoon of pink salt gives 1.9 g of sodium. It can be a healthy option to regular salt and one can also mix the two and use for it cooking.”
However, doctors warn that even this salt, if used in pure form, has to be limited to five grams per day.
Is black salt any better?
Dr Sudhir says that Himalayan black salt may be another option that is better than table salt due to its lower sodium content.
“This salt also has fewer additives as it goes through minimal processing (as compared to regular table salt),” he adds.
Health benefits attributed to this salt also includes that it is good for hair, skin, and digestion.
However, there is not enough quality research to support these claims.
WHO calls for policy decisions
The WHO has called on member-states to implement sodium intake reduction policies without delay and to mitigate the harmful effects of excessive salt consumption. The WHO also called on food manufacturers to set ambitious sodium reduction targets in their products.
Meanwhile, doctors also stress that sodium plays an important role in several biological functions, including fluid balance, nerve conduction, and muscle contraction — so complete removal of sodium from the diet is also a bad idea.
Remember, moderation is the key here.