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Salt shaker and pot

Worth your salt?

Producers, restaurateurs and caterers are being given food for thought for National Salt Awareness Week.

Sandwiched between National Butchers Week and Bacon Connoisseurs Week, National Salt Awareness Week is being met with finely timed initiatives to strip seemingly inoffensive food of excessive salt that, it is argued, is catching us all off guard.

But who doesn’t love a bit of salt? A pinch for your veg, a shake for your sauce perhaps? We all need a little bit of salt every day if we’re to keep those electrolytes in check and regulate our body’s water content, but our food landscape is also laden with ‘hidden’ salt; in processed meals, fast food outlets and restaurants. And now, with the national week in tow, the industry is coming under further pressure to lead the way in weening us off the white stuff.

We shouldn’t be surprised there’s salt in our out-of-home meals, but Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) has this week published results of salt levels in 29 high street and celebrity restaurants. Part of its key findings state that “52% of all meals surveyed would be labelled in a supermarket with a red traffic light.” Though few of us are eating at restaurants every night, it argues that customers shouldn’t be served food that exceeds the recommended daily allowance of 6g of salt a day in one meal (CASH claims 13 of nearly 700 dishes analysed met this criteria). What’s more, 70% of CASH’s respondents said chefs should be responsible for helping them consume less salt.

But it’s not only food eaten out of the home that’s an issue. Cereals, bread and snacks come seasoned too, giving cause for consistent pleas on behalf of children who are feared to be in some cases intaking more than the adult daily equivalent.

The Department of Health this week has published its new salt strategy as part of its Public Health Responsibility Deal, which in this instance hopes to redirect our salty preferences with a “holistic approach” and reduce consumption by 25%. It says 2012 targets should be revised in over 80 categories of food; that the out-of-home sector should be encouraged to set new maximum targets for popular dishes; and that more companies should use their influence to encourage consumers to take lower salt options.

Sounds easy, but salt has long been at the forefront of charity campaigns and Government white papers. The 6g national salt target was supported in 2001 and since then, reduction targets have subsequently been set by the Food Standards Agency. And as recently as last year, a salt catering pledge was published. These are moves in the right direction, but the Department of Health’s estimations are still ringing in collective ears — that reducing salt intake by 1g per day (a pinch of salt) would prevent 4,147 deaths and save £288m for the NHS every year.

This Responsibility Deal is voluntary; what’s ultimately in our control is how we use salt in our own kitchens and making informed choices where we can. By avoiding excessive dashing, our palettes will adapt to accept reduced seasoning as a preference, with too much salt rendering unpalatable. Perhaps then our intolerance to food subjected to salt like there’s no tomorrow can flag up the real challenge – and change – to what goes on behind kitchen doors.

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