Salt, it seems harmless - it is something we add to our food for flavour, sometimes before we have even tasted it, but what we do not realise is that too much salt is bad for us. A high salt diet is one of the key drivers of hypertension, or high blood pressure, and hypertension increases one’s risk of experiencing heart disease or stroke. South Africa has one of the highest rates of hypertension worldwide with 1 in 3 people over the age of 15 suffering from high blood pressure. Statistics show that there are about 130 heart attacks and 240 strokes daily in South Africa, meaning that 10 people will suffer a stroke and five people will have a heart attack every hour. Although the picture looks bleak, this World Hypertension Day (17 May), the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSF) wants to remind South Africans that a staggering 80 percent of these cardiovascular diseases could be prevented through modified lifestyle behaviour - like reducing salt.
“Along with modified behaviour, it is vital that people know what their blood pressure is,” says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, chief executive officer of the HSF. “Because there are no obvious symptoms, many people walk around suffering from hypertension without being aware of it – that is why it is called the ‘silent killer’ and this puts them at a tremendous health risk."
Besides eating a healthy diet, being physically active and stopping smoking, one of the most important things people can do to lower their blood pressure is to reduce their salt intake. On average, South Africans are consuming more than double the recommended amount of salt – which should be no more than one teaspoon of salt a day from all sources. "Most people do not realise how much salt they are consuming, both at the table and hidden in processed foods," says Dr Mungal-Singh. “In fact, about 55 percent of the salt we eat is hidden in processed foods!” The biggest culprits being bread, cereals, hard / block margarines, gravy and soup powders, meat products like sausage, polony and pies, meat and vegetable extracts, and fast foods. One South African study showed that 80 percent of us do not think we eat too much salt, while in reality 75 percent do.
Fortunately, in 2013 the Minister of Health signed legislation to make salt reduction in the food industry mandatory, helping to achieve the Government’s target to reduce salt intake in South Africa by 2020. This makes South Africa the first country globally to legislate salt levels to help reduce the amount of salt that the public takes in from processed foods.
According to a new study released this week at the World Heart Federation’s World Congress of Cardiology, South Africa’s salt targets could reduce deaths from heart disease and strokes by 11 percent. The economic impact of this is enormous - the study estimates that the Government will save approximately R536 million a year in healthcare subsidies, and will also save households approximately R42 million per year in healthcare costs.
To support the legislation, the HSF is leading the Salt Watch campaign, a national public awareness and education campaign to encourage South Africans to reduce their salt intake. Salt Watch is driven by a multisectoral coalition, supported by the national Department of Health, and is a member of World Action on Salt and Health.
The first step we can take to reduce our salt intake is to choose foods that contain less salt. Remember that more than half of our daily salt is already in the food when we buy it. Using more whole foods and cutting back on processed foods will help to avoid hidden salt in foods. Consumers are also advised to look out for products with the Heart Mark as these contain less salt.
The easiest way to reduce salt intake is to start using less salt while cooking and at the table. Always taste your food before you add salt and only add a little at a time. And remember that your taste buds can adapt to less salt in two to three weeks. If you are looking to add more flavour to your food, instead of reaching for the salt, you can use a variety of ingredients like fresh or dried herbs, spices like curry powder, vinegar, lemon juice or garlic to enhance the natural flavours of your food.
- Many so-called ‘health foods’ are high in sodium;
- Most of the salt in our diet is found in processed foods;
- Bread is the single highest contributor to the total salt intake of South Africans;
- The World Health Organisation sees hypertension as a bigger health risk than smoking;
- A high-salt diet is a leading cause of high blood pressure and high blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for stroke; and
- A reduction of salt intake by two grams per day reduces cardiovascular events by 20 percent.
About The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa
The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa plays a leading role in the fight against preventable heart disease and stroke, with the aim of seeing fewer South Africans suffer premature deaths and disabilities. The HSF, established in 1980 is a non-governmental, non-profit organisation and has NPO and section 21 status.
For more information, contact the Heart and Stroke Health Line on 0860 1 HEART (43278) or visit www.heartfoundation.co.za, you can also find us on www.facebook.com/HeartStrokeSA and www.twitter.com/SAHeartStroke
Read more about Salt Watch here: www.heartfoundation.co.za/salt-watch
- Samukelisiwe Mabaso (email: firstname.lastname@example.org, office: 021 447 6268) is public relations and communications officer at the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.