Salt or sodium chloride is essential for human life but at the same time excess salt in foods can also cause undue harm to human health. Sodium is an electrolyte and osmotic solute but excessive salt consumption increases the risk of high blood pressure leading to heart disease. Most experts in developed countries as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that sodium intake must be less than 2,000 mg which is equivalent to 5 grams of salt per day, roughly one teaspoonful. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) also recommends 5g of salt per day.
Saltiness is one of the basic human tastes that is enjoyed by all and food tastes bland without it. Salt is also the oldest food seasonings as humans have added salt to their food for thousands of years. Besides being used as food additive sodium is also one of the oldest methods of preserving food along with smoking especially for meats and its use as a preservative continues. Historically the taste and flavour of salt in foods is acceptable and is therefore used as one of the ways of enhancing the tastiness of processed foods. However, taste alone is not the main reason for addition of sodium to foods. Salt plays an important role in reducing growth of pathogens and prevents spoilage of foods and improves texture and increases the safety and shelf life of processed foods.
However, intake of salt in India is reaching dangerous proportions. In a recent research conducted by the George Institute for Global Health, Public Health Foundation of India and the Centre for Chronic Disease Control in India, found that packaged food products had high salt content. According to the study the UK products had a quarter of the salt content found in Indian packaged products and Indian packaged foods failed to meet international Codex Alimentarius requirements. The study was conducted on 5,796 packaged food products and it also revealed that two similar products could have 10 times more salt than others. Moreover, two thirds of the products had not listed sodium in the nutritional information panel which is a non-adherence of FSSAI guidelines as specified under FSS (Packaging & Labelling) Regulations, 2011.
The high level of salt in processed foods, in India has become a great public concern especially as more and more Indians are using convenient foods. The recent study pointed out that papads had a mean sodium content of 1219mg/100g with a range of 2-4000mg/100g. When papad can be made and preserved using 2mg then why do some brands contain 4000mg of salt? It was also found that cooking sauces, table sauces and spreads contained on average five-and-a-half gram of salt per 100g, with some containing 10 times that amount and others had very little salt. This is also a growing concern as sauces and spreads and papads are accompaniments of table foods.
Most consumers do not know that packaged foods and beverages can contain high levels of sodium, whether or not they taste salty. Some common food additives – like monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium nitrite, and sodium benzoate – also contain sodium and contribute to the total amount of “sodium” in packaged foods. That’s why it’s important to use the nutritional information panel to check the sodium content. The study conducted by the George Institute for Global Health, Public Health Foundation of India found that more than 24% products lacked or had incomplete nutrition information about sodium on labels which makes it impossible for consumers to make a healthy choice. According to the report, salt intake in India is estimated to be more than double the recommended maximum of 2000mg sodium (5gm salt) /day set by the WHO. High salt intake increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, the main cause of strokes and a leading cause of cardiovascular diseases which are also some of the most common causes of death and disability in the world. Excess salt consumption is estimated to cause about 600,000 deaths each year and is the fifth leading cause of death in India.
Just like in western countries, in recent times, in India too processed foods, snacks and convenient foods have become the source of excess sodium. The Food and Nutrition Board of National Academy of Sciences, India says that “intakes of 1.1-3.3 g of sodium or 2.8-8.3 NaCl per day is considered to be safe and adequate for healthy adults.” Most dietary sodium is found in the form of sodium chloride, which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride. Salt is naturally present in most foods like meats, vegetables and in small quantities in fruit. However, with the demand for convenience foods the use of preservatives has gone up. Salt being a low cost preservative is used in processed canned and pickled foods. Dairy salt is used in the preparation of butter and cheese products. It is now clear that the main sources of salt in the diet, apart from direct use of sodium chloride during cooking or on the table comes from bread and cereal products, meat products and milk and dairy products. Therefore the food industry is directly responsible to reduce the unnecessary amounts of salt, fat and sugar added to processed foods.
Since more sodium can be consumed from other foods rather than cooked foods it is important for consumers to take steps to lower daily sodium intake. In fact, about 75% of dietary sodium comes from eating packaged and restaurant foods, whereas only a small portion of about 11% comes from salt added to food when cooking or eating. Taste alone is not the accurate judge of sodium content. Cereals and pastries do not taste salty but they contain sodium. Some foods like bread that you eat several times a day could contain potassium iodate and could increase sodium content. Though the CSE has called for a ban on potassium iodate, the FSSAI has yet to ban it because it is sometimes used for iodination of table salt to prevent iodine deficiency.
According to ICMR 10% of deaths in India are attributable to hypertension and this appears to be an escalating disorder. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends all member states to reduce mean population level salt intake by 30% by 2025.