For centuries, salt was relied upon as a hardy preservative, enabling man to store perishable foods for lean times or to transport home-made delicacies across vast oceans and ensure they were still, well, edible, by the time they arrived at their destination. But today, research confirms that the salt once used to sustain the shelf life of food is cutting short the lives of the people who eat it. Salt is crucial for health and without enough of it the body cannot function, but according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), too much could be harmful.
"There's now very compelling evidence that dietary salt is a major factor that raises blood pressure to dangerous levels," says Professor Graham MacGregor of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and the chairman of World Action on Salt and Health (WASH). In November last year, the WHO claimed that 62 per cent of all strokes and 49 per cent of coronary heart disease is due to high blood pressure. "Men, particularly at a younger age, tend to have a diet that is higher in saturated fat, eat more salt and consume less fruit and vegetables," warns MacGregor. According to the WHO, high-sodium salt intake has been linked to other health problems, including greater retention of water, weight gain, osteoporosis, asthma, gall stones and even kidney disease.
All of this adds up to particularly bad news for men in the Middle East after a recent report by WASH recorded the levels of salt in the foods on supermarket shelves and fast food stores here to be among the highest in the world. About 77 per cent of the average man's salt intake comes from processed foods and restaurant fare. "This is especially a concern among the migrant worker population in this region," explains Dr Wael al Mahmeed, the vice president of the Emirates Cardiac Society. "Many are relying on fast food and junk food since they're living away from home."
The WASH survey discovered that UAE varieties of global brand products such as KFC and Kellogg's have much higher salt content levels than the exact same foods sold in other countries. In the UK, a combination of public demand and health-group lobbying has seen the beginning of a shift in salt consumption. The amount of salt added to processed foods has been reduced in recent years by 20-30 per cent. There, a target has been set to halve the current recommendation of 6g of salt a day to 3g by 2025. "But here the figures for salt intake - among men especially - is as high as 10g a day," warns Dr al Mahmeed, who insists that until the government and food producers take action, educate consumers and introduce salt labelling, then it's up to us as individuals to take responsibility for our own salt intake. Not just to keep our blood pressure in check either.
Changing our perception of salt is crucial too. "People working in the region may think they need to consume more salt to make up for the amount they lose from their body through sweat - but that's a myth," says Dr al Mahmeed. "Your body extracts more than enough nutrients from a balanced diet - no matter how hot you get or even how much sweat you emit through exercise." Consuming table salt to replenish it isn't necessary.
Taking simple steps to cut the amount of sodium you buy or add to the food you eat could literally save your life. "Provided these cuts are done by small amounts, the human salt taste receptors become much more sensitive to lower concentrations of salt," adds Dr al Mahmeed. For many people who slash their salt intake, high salt foods then become inedible. To reduce your salt intake, look for "low-sodium" and "sodium-free" labels on supermarket foods, though wherever possible, select fresh produce over processed foods.
"At a restaurant, don't be afraid to ask the waiter that no salt be added to your dish," suggests the nutritionist and salt expert Katharine Jenner. "Or if you find your food is too salty, make a point of telling the manager at the end of the meal." We've evolved to expect salt in our food so you may need to wean yourself off gradually. "Its taste is something we're used to, so to drastically remove it straight away may not have the desired effect," says Jenner. Instead, she suggests we adopt a more gradual approach. "First off, reduce the amount of salt you put into food when preparing it. Skip the salt when you season food you're cooking." Try other flavour enhancers such as pepper, herbs, lemon juice or ginger. Once you've got into the habit of that, reduce and then cut out the amount of salt you add to food. Empty the salt cellar at home to stop yourself from sprinkling it on meals. Finally, when shopping look for low-salt cooking sauces or meals.
Swap the snacks around at home and work too. Instead of biscuits in the jar or crisps in the cupboard, put dried fruit snacks there instead. "And if you are having a TV dinner or processed meal, have a bowl of fresh vegetables or fruit with it too," says Jenner. "There's good evidence that increasing potassium intake - through eating fresh fruit and vegetables - results in lower blood pressure." Bananas and avocadoes are especially good for potassium, as is seaweed.
Opt for high-octane forms of cooking - such as pan-searing and grilling - over steaming or poaching, since these bring out the salts in foods. Then replace adding salt to these meals by using black pepper or lemon juice instead; and opt for purpose-built sports drinks that contain isotonic ingredients or electrolytes as opposed to using table salt to replace any nutrients lost through sweating. Lastly, be aware that even the so-called health options can carry unhealthy amounts of salt if they're pre-packed. A WASH study of 270 salads offered by high-street supermarket, cafés and fast-food chains in the UK found that many contained at least half a person's recommended daily salt intake - the worst offender, a spicy crayfish noodle salad, which contained 3.5g of salt per portion, making it 17 times saltier than the healthiest salad in the study.