One On One

Q & A – Nicole Jennings

A survey released this week indicated that people in South Africa know very little about how much salt they should consume in their everyday food items. The release of the findings coincided with the World Salt Awareness Week, marked from March 4-10. It is aimed at creating more public awareness of the health dangers associated with consuming too much salt. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked Nicole Jennings, the spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics, which was involved in the study, how serious the problem is in South Africa. Makoni also asked Jennings what can be done to assist those addicted to salt. Excerpts:

The SA government has made efforts since 2016 to have salt levels in food reduced but a recent survey has revealed that people in the country know very little about consumption levels in everyday foods, what could be the reason for that?
Adding salt to food when cooking or preparing meals is so ingrained in most of us such it’s difficult to break the habit. Instead of salting our food to give it taste, we need to learn new and healthier ways of doing so, such as substituting salt with lemon or other spices to add flavour. We need to adapt our taste buds to different tastes other than salt and this takes time. Education around the health risks associated with too much salt consumption should be ongoing. Consumers should also be taught how to read food labels properly to make more informed choices when shopping. I think many would be surprised as to how much salt they actually consume in a day if they had to add it all up.

The optimum daily limit for salt for individuals is five grams, how practical is it to stick to it given that people often rely on fast-foods when unable to cook?
Consumers should try to lessen their dependence on fast foods and realise that eating unhealthily has a direct impact on their health and well-being. Making the time to prepare nutritionally balanced meals that are low in salt (and sugar) is non-negotiable. If you become an advocate for healthy eating, it will rub off on others, especially young children who form their eating habits while in their youth. Healthy eating, takes some organising, but there are resources that are available to the public (free of charge), such as Pharma Dynamics’ Cooking from the Heart online cookbook that contain more than 100 recipes that are low in salt and have been approved by the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA. To download any of the recipes, visit www.cookingfromtheheart.co.za. The meals are easy-to-make, budget-friendly and serves a family of four. However, when time does not permit for cooking, rather opt for healthier take-away options. Always be aware of what you put into your body. 

How important is it for people to consume the right amount of salt per day and what are some of the health dangers associated with consuming too much salt?
Consuming too much salt increases blood pressure in various ways. When your blood pressure is consistently high, your heart has to work harder which puts extra strain on blood vessels. Over time, the increased load can lead to a heart attack and/or stroke. It can also damage the heart, aorta and kidneys.

According to the survey, a quarter of South Africans admitted to being salt addicts, that’s a huge number given the effect of salt on health, will it be fair to say South African authorities haven’t done enough in their awareness campaigns on salt consumption?
There is always room for improvement. The key is consistent communication and education around the topic. Healthcare practitioners could also help a great deal in this respect when consulting with patients.

What sort of assistance can one get if they feel that they are addicted to salt and want to cut their intake?
The Cooking from the Heart Cookbook is a great online resource to turn to as it contains helpful hints and tips, and serves as a guide for salt-addicts. It’s easy to read and understand, and is accessible to everyone. There is also a Facebook page where salt-addicts can connect with others who have embarked on a journey to healthier living: https://www.facebook.com/CookingFromTheHeartSA/ 

Is it really that people in South Africa don’t know about the optimum salt limit, or they just don’t care about it?
I think a lot of education still needs to be done. It would help a great deal if mainstream supermarkets come on board to encourage shoppers to buy foods that are low in salt.

Some countries have been able to regulate the amount of salt put in commercially prepared foods, is South Africa really failing to do the same, or it’s just poor implementation of an important policy?
Tougher salt legislation has seen a decline in salt levels in certain foods, however it is the combined amount of salt from all the foods we eat in a day that often amounts to eight times the recommended daily allowance, putting South Africans in the danger zone for heart disease.

From your point of view, what will it take for South African authorities, industry and the people in general, to abide by the recommended salt limit of five grams per person per day?
A high level of sustained awareness at the point of purchase, such as supermarkets, are essential in my opinion. A simpler way of labelling food products, indicating high, moderate or low risk by way of a traffic light system would make it easier for busy, time-constrained shoppers who often don’t have time to read food labels.

Which commercially prepared foods contain some of the highest amounts of salt?
The following food items are all high in salt: cheese, flavoured cream cheese and cottage cheese; tinned foods, especially those preserved in brine; stock powders or cubes; soup powders or tinned soups; marinades or marinade powders; olives and pickles; any processed meat: polony, ham, salami, turkey, sausages, viennas etc; any takeaway fast foods, like burgers, fish and chips, crumbed chicken, pizzas and Chinese take-aways; seasoning salts, like barbeque or chicken spice; salty spreads, including margarine, butter, cheese spreads and meat spreads; cured meat and fish: bokkoms, bacon, biltong, anchovies, corned beef; instant noodles with flavouring; Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce; crisps, salted biscuits and crackers and ready-made popcorn, among others.

Is it possible to cut one’s consumption of salt to zero and is it healthy to do so?
The body needs a bit of salt (sodium) to survive as it’s crucial to regulating many important bodily functions. About 500mg is a safe minimum daily intake.

While individuals are continuously being encouraged to cut down on their salt intake, what’s being done to the companies preparing some of the foodstuffs and why is it so difficult for them to cut the salt amounts they use?
The food industry has taken some time to adapt, but strides are being made. New salt legislation, which will be introduced during the course of the year, will again put additional pressure on food producers to reduce the salt content in their products.