You don’t have to add salt to food to be eating too much – 75% of the salt we eat is already in everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereal and ready meals.
A diet that is high in salt can cause raised blood pressure, which currently affects more than one third of adults in the UK.
High blood pressure often has no symptoms, and it is estimated that in England about one in every three people who have high blood pressure don’t know it. But if you have it, you are more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke. If you’re aged 40-74, you can expect to receive a letter from your GP or local authority inviting you for a free NHS Health Check, which includes a check on your blood pressure.
Cutting down on salt lowers blood pressure, which means that your risk of having a stroke or developing heart disease is reduced.
How much salt for adults?
Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day – that’s around one teaspoon. Children should eat less (see below for recommendations for babies and children).
Salt and sodium in your food
Salt is also called sodium chloride. Sometimes, food labels only give the figure for sodium. But there is a simple way to work out how much salt you are eating from the sodium figure:
- Salt = sodium x 2.5
Adults should eat no more than 2.4g of sodium per day, as this is equal to 6g of salt.
Use nutrition labels to check salt levels
Cutting back on added salt is only a small part of the solution. To really cut down, you need to become aware of the salt that is already in the everyday foods you buy, and choose lower-salt options.
Fortunately, nutrition labels on food packaging now make this a lot easier. Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging.
Many foods also display information about the salt content on the front of the packaging. This may show the salt content as a percentage of your reference intake (RI), or have colour-coded nutrition information to show whether the food is low, medium or high in salt. Where colour-coding is used, red means high. Try to eat high-salt foods only occasionally, or in small amounts, and aim to eat mainly foods that are green (low) or amber (medium).
Look at the figure for salt per 100g:
- High is more than 1.5g salt (0.6g sodium) per 100g. These foods may be colour-coded red.
- Low is 0.3g salt (0.1g sodium) or less per 100g. These foods may be colour-coded green.
If the amount of salt per 100g is between 0.3g and 1.5g, that is a medium level of salt, and the packaging may be colour-coded amber.
As a rule, aim for foods that have a low or medium salt content. Try to have high-salt foods only occasionally, or in small amounts.
Of course, one easy way to eat less salt is to stop adding salt to your food during cooking and at the dinner table. If you regularly add salt to food when cooking, try cutting it out or adding less. When you sit down to eat, taste your food first to see if it needs salt before adding any. It doesn’t take long for our taste buds to get used to less salt and you might find you start to appreciate other flavours more.
Babies, children and salt
Babies and children under 11 should have less salt than adults.
Babies under a year old should have less than 1g of salt a day. If a baby is breastfed, they will get the right amount of minerals, including sodium and chloride, from breast milk. Formula milk contains a similar amount to breast milk.
Don’t add salt to your baby’s milk or food and don’t use stock cubes or gravy as they’re often high in salt and their kidneys can’t cope with it. Remember this when you’re cooking for the family if you plan to give the same food to your baby.
Avoid giving your baby processed foods such as ready meals as these are often high in salt. However, food manufactured specifically for babies should meet the recommended levels. If in doubt, always check the label.
The daily recommended maximum amount of salt children should eat depends on age:
- 1 to 3 years – 2g salt a day (0.8g sodium)
- 4 to 6 years – 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium)
- 7 to 10 years – 5g salt a day (2g sodium)
- 11 years and over – 6g salt a day (2.4g sodium)
Making sure your child doesn’t eat too much salt means you’re also helping to ensure that they don’t develop a taste for salty food, which makes them less likely to eat too much salt as an adult.
Foods that contain salt
Some foods are almost always high in salt because of the way they are made.
Other foods, such as bread and breakfast cereals, can contribute a lot of salt to our diet. But that’s not because these foods are always high in salt – it’s because we eat a lot of them.
The following foods are almost always high in salt. To cut down on salt, eat them less often or have smaller amounts:
- gravy granules
- salted and dry-roasted nuts
- salt fish
- smoked meat and fish
- soy sauce
- stock cubes
- yeast extract
Foods that can be high in salt
In the following foods, the salt content can vary widely between different brands or varieties. That means you can cut down on salt by comparing brands and choosing the one that is lower in salt. Nutrition labels can help you do this.
These foods include:
- bread products such as crumpets, bagels and ciabatta
- pasta sauces
- ready meals
- tomato ketchup, mayonnaise and other sauces
- breakfast cereals
Soluble vitamin supplements or painkillers
If you routinely take an effervescent (dissolvable) vitamin supplement, or take effervescent painkillers when necessary, it’s worth remembering that these can contain up to 1g salt per tablet. You may therefore wish to consider changing to a non-effervescent tablet, particularly if you have been advised to watch or reduce your salt intake.
Scientific research into salt and health
For more information about the effects of too much salt in our diet, you can download the Scientific and Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s report on salt and health (PDF, 372kb).