This week is National Salt Awareness Week, and the spotlight is on reducing salt in our children’s diets. Run by Consensus Action Against Salt and Health (CASH) the awareness week highlights just how much hidden salt is found in foods targeted at children.
Our taste preferences start to develop at a young age, so keeping your child’s salt intake to a minimum can be an important step to safeguarding their health from future complications, such as an increased risk of stomach cancer and high blood pressure.
Salads are synonymous with ‘healthy lunches’, but as the weather grows colder they become less appealing. Also, let’s face it, even in the peak of summer the most appetising salads tend to be the ones slathered in rich, creamy and highly calorific dressings.
So here are some top tips for satisfying healthy lunches to have alongside the occasional salad that won’t have you reaching for the biscuit tin by 3pm and won’t break the bank.
The ideal budget lunch solution is to take leftovers from the previous night’s meal to work, which can be popped in the microwave and ready within minutes (if you don’t have a microwave at work, take them warm in a thermos). Stews and casseroles are ideal for leftover lunches, as are pasta dishes. Leftovers from a Sunday roast can also be used up for Monday lunch – for example, you could eat the cooked meat cold, with a salad. Also, keeping a bag of frozen veggies in the work freezer (if you have one) is a cheap and easy way to add an extra portion of your 5 A DAY to lunch.
The versatile new potato
New potatoes make a low-calorie but filling accompaniment to a salad or plate of leftovers – three to four new potatoes (90g) contains about 50 calories, which is considerably less than the bread roll you might otherwise eat. You can take pre-cooked new potatoes into work (they last a couple of days if you refrigerate them) and reheat them with the rest of your meal or eat them cold. Alternatively, you can cook new potatoes in the microwave – just place in a covered, microwavable dish with a tablespoon of water and cook for about 5 minutes.
Beans, beans, good for the heart…
Another way to make a (truly healthy) salad more filling is by adding tinned beans or pulses to your leaves and salad veg. Beans and pulses, such as cannellini beans or chickpeas, are a good source of protein so make a healthy alternative to meat. They are also cheap and ready to eat straight out of the tin – my tip is to look for tins of mixed beans in water, as these look appealing on the plate and give some variety in flavour and texture. For more ideas, visit the salad recipe section of our website.
If you don’t have time to prepare your own, try to choose salads that contain beans, lentils, couscous or quinoa – they all release energy slowly, so will keep you fuller for longer. Another tip is to opt for salads that have a pot of dressing, preferably oil-based, rather than being pre-dressed, as this way you can control how much you use.
Soup of the day
If the WCRF UK office is anything to go by, soup is the autumn lunch of choice. Soups are satisfying, warming and, of course, an easy way to get at least one of your 5 A DAY.
Homemade soup can be quick and easy to make – check out our healthy soup recipes for some inspiration. Simplify your week by making a batch at the weekend to last you a few days. If you make too much, you can always pop a few portions in the freezer until you need them.
If it’s not practical to make your own then soup bought from a supermarket or sandwich shop can still be a healthy lunch option if you know what you’re looking for. Some shop-bought soups can be high in salt and calories so steering clear of those labelled ‘cream of’ or that contain processed meat such as ham, bacon or chorizo are good ways to avoid the worst culprits.
Use your loaf
Bread from a pre-sliced loaf can vary from less than 60 calories per slice to around 120 calories, so it is worth having a look before you buy. I go for 400g loaves as it’s an easy way to save calories – the slices are simply smaller!
Always try to choose wholegrain – the high fibre content is good for your digestive health and means the energy is released more slowly than in white bread so you’re less likely to get that afternoon slump.
I also keep a packet of wholegrain crispbreads on my desk – they are a great alternative to bread with soup or salad and are a healthier alternative to crisps or biscuits for when you get a craving for a crunchy snack.
Another place you can make a healthier choice is in the spread you chose. Go for low-fat cream cheese (garlic and herb is my personal favourite) rather than butter or margarine in a sandwich or on toast – it tastes great and saves on calories.
Avoiding mayonnaise, cheese and meat in rich, creamy dressings can also reduce the calories in your sandwich. Healthy options include plain chicken, turkey or tuna, all with fresh, crisp salad. Adding spring onions, some fresh herbs or a teaspoonful of fresh tomato salsa is a great way to inject flavour.
As with soups, if you buy pre-made sandwiches, take a few moments to compare the nutritional information. You’ll be amazed by the calorie saving you can make!
Check the label
If you’re choosing a shop-bought lunch, take a moment to look at the nutritional information. Chain sandwich shops often label the calorie content of their products, and have more information on their websites so you can check if their soup of the day is a healthy option before you even leave your desk.
Supermarket websites or front-of-pack labels provide this information too. Take a look at our guide to reading food labels to find out more about making healthy choices.
Most of us suffer from that mid-afternoon snack craving at least some days, but often it has nothing to do with actually being hungry. Try taking a break – get up and make yourself a cup of tea, or if you need to ask a colleague something, walk to their desk rather than emailing them. This small amount of activity and change of scenery might be all you need. For days when the craving can’t be silenced, it’s a good idea to keep some healthy snacks to hand. Here are some ideas:
Flavoured rice cakes (sweet and savoury are available)
Unsalted nuts and seeds
Wholegrain or baked crisps (buy a multipack – the bags are usually smaller)
Skinny, unsalted popcorn
Fresh fruit (take advantage of supermarket special offers by sharing with a colleague)
Vegetable sticks, including carrots, cucumber and celery (on their own or with a dip such as plain or flavoured reduced-fat houmous, cream cheese or cottage cheese)
If you have any top tips for a healthy lunch, why not share them in the comments section below.
This is not due to bread being a high-salt food – the vast majority would fall into the amber category based on front-of-pack nutrition labeling criteria – but because a large amount is consumed in the UK.
The authors of the paper, published in BMJ Open, highlighted that the average salt content of supermarket-brand breads is about 10 per cent lower than branded breads (0.95g compared to 1.04g per 100g).
Although a similar scale of reduction has been seen in both supermarket and branded breads since 2001, the fact that supermarkets have been able to achieve this low content, which is below the 2012 target, proves it is technically possible.
It also suggests that gradual change allows consumers’ tastes to adapt, as no change in consumer preference has been reported.
The Department of Health is in the process of reviewing and setting new salt targets for the main dietary contributors. This research indicates that further reductions to the target for bread could be made.
The campaigning group Consensus Action on Salt and Health has called for new salt targets, saying that ‘further reductions would have major health benefits’.
Salt has, rightly, become one of the modern diet’s bogeymen, along with fat and sugar, because of the links between current excessive consumption levels and disease.
Although they are essential to all animal life and perhaps man’s earliest food seasoning and preservative, those plain white grains have come to be one of the foodstuffs we know we should limit.
This is because the level of salt consumption in the UK is well above the recommended maximum of 6g a day. As our press release of last July noted, average daily salt intake in the UK is 8.3g – 43 per cent higher than advised.
Ten years ago the government’s Science Advisory Committee on Nutrition reported on the risk posed by salt to the nation’s health, focussing on the effects salt has on blood pressure and the heart. The report noted: “A reduction in the average population salt intake would proportionally lower population average blood pressure levels and confer significant public health benefits by contributing to a decrease in the burden of cardiovascular disease.”
Since then, evidence linking salt to stomach cancer has made it imperative that we all try to cut down on the amount of salt we add to our food. One in seven cases could be prevented if everyone in the UK cut their daily intake to 6g, or a level teaspoon’s worth.
Most of the salt in our diet comes from the following foodstuffs:
Processed foods. These are often high in ‘hidden’ salt – hidden because often these foods don’t taste salty. Manufacturers use salt as a preservative and a cheap flavour enhancer. About 75 per cent of our daily salt consumption comes from processed foods. Even sweet foods, such as biscuits or cakes, can contain high levels of salt.
Added salt. The amount of salt we add to our food during cooking or at the table.
Natural salt. Very small amounts of salt can be found naturally in foods, including eggs, meat, fish and spinach. This would be enough to meet our daily salt requirements.
There are a number of easy ways to cut down on salt and reduce our risk of getting cancer:
Eat more fruit and veg instead of salty processed foods. In particular, watch out for foods we don’t usually associate with salt like breakfast cereals, bread and sweet foods.
Choose home-cooked meals made with fresh produce that give greater control over what we eat.
Check labels. Remember even foods labelled as reduced salt or sodium can still be salty. Choose foods with no added salt.
Aim to cut out salt added during cooking or at the table. By getting used to eating less salt, subtle flavours will come through.
Use other spices and seasonings to add flavour.
Another confusing factor in managing salt consumption is the use of both salt and sodium (a component of salt) on label guides. To work out the salt content of a product that only gives the sodium content, multiply the sodium by 2.5. The Food Standards Agency defines high-salt food as containing more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.5g of sodium). Low-salt food contains less than 0.3 g of salt (0.1g of sodium) per 100g.
Today’s report that a third of breads contain more salt than recommended under guidelines to be introduced next year, comes as no surprise to some.
Despite salt levels in bread having fallen by about a third in the past decade, the Campaign for Action on Salt and Health (CASH), who looked at nearly 300 loaves, still found levels to be unacceptably high.
Eating too much salt is not only linked to high blood pressure but, as reported in our 2007 expert report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, is also a high risk factor for stomach cancer.
By reducing the amount of salt in our diets, as well as eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, we can help to lower that risk. However, as today’s report highlights, the amount of salt we consume is not always apparent. Food manufacturers use salt as a preservative and a cheap flavour enhancer – an estimated 75 per cent of our daily salt consumption comes from processed foods. Even sweet foods, such as biscuits or cakes, can contain high salt levels.
It’s therefore essential that food producers, governments and individuals alike be aware of the amount of salt we consume and reduce levels, and use alternatives, wherever possible.
Top tips to reduce the salt in our diet
Take the saltshaker off the table – If you gradually reduce the amount of salt you add to food during cooking and at the table, your taste buds should adjust within a few weeks.
Replace salt with spices, herbs, garlic and lemon – Herbs and spices such as chilli powder, ginger, basil, and other flavours such as garlic, lemon and black pepper, all add flavour to food in a healthy way.
Make your own meals from scratch – Cooking your own meals from fresh ingredients gives you more opportunity to control the amount of salt in your diet.
Look for lower-salt foods when shopping – Check food labels and select products with less salt or sodium. Choose tinned or packaged foods with no added salt (or sugar).
Eat fresh meat rather than processed meat – Avoid eating bacon, cured meats and some sausages as they all contain high levels of salt and are also linked to a higher risk of bowel cancer.
Limit the amount of salty snacks you eat – Replace salty snacks, such as crisps and salted nuts, with small portions of dried fruit or unsalted nuts.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that misrepresentative reporting of health issues is one of our major bugbears. Unfortunately the phenomenon is so widespread in British newspapers that it is impossible for us to comment on every single example.
However, the article on page 9 of today’s Daily Mail illustrates perfectly how the media, and in particular the press, distorts scientific reviews and studies to generate scare headlines.
The story reports a small review into reduced salt consumption which found no evidence that limited cuts in salt intake reduced the risk of premature death or developing heart disease.
The researchers behind this review conceded it was not large enough to show any benefits to health and the review leader admitted that because the reduction in salt was only moderate “the effect on blood pressure and heart disease was not large”.
Despite these caveats, the Mail ran the story under the damaging headline: Cutting back on salt ‘does not make you healthier’. The online version raised the spectre of the nanny state with the added: (despite nanny state warnings).
The Mail’s opening paragraph tells readers: “Eating less salt will not prevent heart attacks, strokes or early death, according to a major study.”
This is despite the fact that the review, which looked at seven studies involving 6,489 participants, can not be classified as a “major study”. It is not until the seventh paragraph that criticism of the “findings” are aired, although perhaps criticism of the Mail’s presentation of the study would be more appropriate.
This criticism is further explained later in the story and the article contains a background to the health risks associated with salt consumption. But the real damage has already been done with the headline and the opening half-dozen paragraphs.
By putting part of the headline in quote marks, the newspaper is seeking to show that the claim is not the paper’s own. But to whom should it be attributed? Certainly review leader Rod Taylor, of Exeter University, does not make such a claim and acknowledges the limited insight the research offers into salt consumption, suggesting larger studies are necessary.
Perhaps the most pertinent part of the Mail story is a quote from Katherine Jenner, of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, who, in one of the closing paragraphs, is reported as saying: “This is a completely inappropriate conclusion, given the strong evidence and the overwhelming public health consensus that salt raises blood pressure which leads to cardiovascular disease.”
By adding this kind of comment the newspaper is aiming to add balance to the article, but this balance is not reflected in the headline.
So why does it matter what’s printed on an inside page of ‘tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper’. Well, the Mail is Britain’s second most-read daily newspaper and it’s online version is threatening to overtake the New York Times as the world’s most popular English-language newspaper site.
So the headlines it displays can have a huge impact on people’s perceptions of health. In particular, it adds to the all-to-common perception that “scientists are always changing their minds” and that there are no constant messages on health.
But, as World Cancer Research Fund has often stated, the scientific advice as it relates to cancer (including that on salt) has been the same for many years. It is newspapers’ treatment of health issues that is at fault in terms of the public opinion. As Ben Goldacre pointed out in the Guardian recently, the majority of health stories in British newspapers are backed up by insufficient scientific evidence.
Unfortunately, the papers show no signs of correcting this and as long as shock-value headlines are more important to editors than providing their readers with valuable facts on health then the current situation will continue.
A report published today by The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) gives recommendations for the prevention of heart disease. The guidance is for government, the NHS, local authorities, industry and all those whose actions influence the population’s cardiovascular health.
Among other things, the report calls for a reduction in salt intake and saturated fat, as well as extending TV advertising scheduling restrictions on food and drink high in fat, salt or sugar up to 9pm. The report has been covered by the BBC Website and the Guardian as well as others.
Many of the recommendations of the NICE report are in line with the recommendations for cancer prevention published in our Policy Report last year. The overall message of our report is that all sections of society from governments to households should make public health, and cancer prevention in particular, a higher priority. The Policy Report estimated that about a third of cases of the most common cancers in the UK could have been prevented through healthy eating, physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight.
Updates from World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF UK) about its cancer prevention work