Don't pass the salt: Parents are trying to cut down but confused by labels

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock Photo: Supplied

Aussie parents are trying to reduce their salt intake but still find food labels confusing, according to a new Victorian study. The research, conducted by Deakin University, highlights that mums and dads are still unsure about sodium and how to interpret levels on the foods they're buying.

"Young children should be consuming less than a teaspoon of salt a day. Any more can increase the risk of high blood pressure and related health issues like a stroke or heart attack later in life," said lead author Ajam Khokhar, from Deakin's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN). "But it's difficult for parents, because while the public message is focused on reducing salt, when they're at the supermarket and pick up a product off the shelf its nutrition panel refers to 'sodium', and that may be hard for them to interpret."

The study, published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, surveyed more than 2000 Australians to examine what parents understand about appropriate salt intake, compared to other adults.

An infographic from VicHealth and Heart Foundation.
An infographic from VicHealth and Heart Foundation. Photo: Facebook/HeartFoundation

And the results were telling.

"It is apparent that salt remains a second-order concern as parents/caregivers were less concerned about the amount of salt in food in relation to fat and sugar in food," the authors write of the findings. "Although parents/caregivers were more likely to report that they were trying to reduce their salt intake than other adults, it is evident that they appear to need support as they were more likely to be adding salt at the table and found sodium information displayed on food labels difficult to understand."

Adds Ms Khokhar, "[Parents] either don't know what sodium is, or how that translates to salt content, so we need some more education on that. There is a formula you can use, but realistically that's just not possible for every food item when you're out shopping with kids."

She says there's a need for a consistent, front of pack labelling system which identifies products low in salt, and provides clear information about salt content "across the board, not just on selected products".

"We need to help parents select lower-salt food options, in a way that means they can pick these off the shelf easily."

Children aged four to eight should consume no more than 3.5 grams of salt per day while the  limit for those aged nine to 13 should be 5 grams. This is equivalent to about 1400 mg and 2000 mg of sodium per day, respectively.


So what is the difference?

The Heart Foundation notes that that sodium is a mineral that the body needs to function properly, while salt is the term we use to refer to table salt, which is a chemical compound. It's made up of 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride. 

"While most of the sodium in our food comes from salt, sodium is also found naturally in various foods that we eat, even when they don't have added salt," Ms Khokhar said. "When the nutrients in foods are analysed the sodium content from all sources is determined, and that's why the current Australian standard is to list sodium content on food products, as opposed to just salt."

Ms Khokhar says that people simply aren't aware that bread, for example, is one of the main culprits when it comes to added salt. "And that's the same with other 'hidden' sources of salt such as ready-made sauces."

"We think that something has to taste salty to be salty," she says. "But to extend the shelf life of processed food there's often a lot of salt added."

But simple tips at the supermarket can help cut down salt intake.

What to look out for at the supermarket:

·       Bread – maximum of 380mg of sodium per 100g

·       Breakfast cereal – maximum of 360mg of sodium per 100g

·       Cheddar-style cheeses – maximum of 710mg of sodium per 100g

·       Processed cheeses – maximum of 1270mg of sodium per 100g

·       Asian-style sauces – maximum of 680mg of sodium per 100g

·       Ready-made paste sauces – maximum of 360mg of sodium per 100g

"Parents can also think about ways to reduce salt in home cooking, such as using herbs and spices to add flavour instead of salt, and swapping processed foods for fresh food," Ms Khokhar says.

VicHealth and the Heart Foundation's Unpack the Salt, offers more suggestions for parents wanting to swap salty lunch box snacks.

  • Ditch store-bought muffins for homemade quick and easy zucchini slice to increase your child's vegetable intake.
  • Swap salty dips for a low salt version or make your own hummus or tzatziki, and pair with carrot, celery or cucumber sticks.
  • Switch flavoured rice crackers for plain rice crackers, plain rice cakes or plain corn cakes.
  • Swap salt and vinegar chips for a packet of unsalted popcorn.
It comes as recent report by The George Institute for Global Health, VicHealth and the Heart Foundation showed a "staggering" amount of salt in Australian fast food meals - as much as double those in the UK.

You can use this tool to convert Sodium to Salt or vice versa.

Complete the ten day unpack your lunch challenge here