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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  The salt of the earth
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The salt of the earth

The salt of the earth

By Shyamal Banerjee/MintPremium

By Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

As one floats blissfully in the clear azure waters of the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side, musing over the possibility of slowly bobbing over to Israel on the horizon, suddenly the reverie is broken. A ripple in the lake causes a tiny drop of water to enter the eye. There’s a sharp, agonizing sting and the next moment one is struggling to stand up and dash towards the fresh water tap located on the top of a sand hill, to wash off the saline excess. The Dead Sea is a hyper-saline lake, nine times saltier than the ocean. In Hebrew, the Dead Sea has two names: YamHam Melah (Sea of Salt) and YamHam Mawet (Sea of Death). With reason, because its 33.3% salinity ensures no aquatic life can survive there.

By Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

The component of salt that we are concerned with is sodium. It is essential to maintain the health of every cell in the body. However, the maximum amount of sodium needed is 2,300mg per day. This is obtained through 5g of salt, i.e. one teaspoon, the World Health Organisation’s stipulated limit for daily salt consumption per person.

But we consume a lot more inadvertently, unconsciously and ignorantly through processed foods. Takeaway pizza is right up there in the list of salt villains. A survey done by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) whose results were released this week showed that most takeaway pizzas contained the entire 5g of daily recommendation of salt. It is hiding there slyly in the base, then again in the sauce and further in the toppings. Other culprits are bread, biscuits, processed cheese, ketchup, breakfast cereals—in fact most eatables that come out of a packet. Repeated studies show that 75% of an average American’s salt intake comes from processed foods. As consumers of humongous quantities of pickles, papads and chaat masala, cardiologists estimate that the average Indian consumes 9g of salt a day. The Chennai Urban Rural Epidemiology Study (CURES), an ongoing study of a representative population, undertook a study of dietary salt intake in 1,902 people in urban Chennai, and found that the average salt consumption was 8.5g a day per person.

Action time. How do we reduce our salt intake and keep it within safe limits?

• Become an avid label reader. In simpler times, when most of the food that you consumed came from your own kitchen, you knew exactly what went into the dish. But as our food gets more ready-made and factory-produced, we must become far more aware and involved with what we eat. Though product labelling in India has a long way to go, it has improved significantly, such that nutritional information is printed on at least all the popular brands of packaged food. Check the sodium content. Safeguard yourself by avoiding the ones which are obviously high. For instance, a popular kids snack, touts itself as baked and not fried, but its sodium content is staggering. Packaged soup is another category with high sodium content, as is Chinese food.

• Remember everything has sodium. Good, wholesome stuff such as milk and fruits too. (A glass of plain, non-fat milk has 40mg, for instance). So, even if you’ve been eating like a nutritionist’s dream, you’ve ingested a fair amount of sodium. That’s why piling on the processed food in addition to this, tips the scales.

• Choose alternatives such as fresh herbs or spices to enhance the flavour of your food, rather than add more salt or chaat masala or soya sauce, which is loaded with sodium.

• Look for better quality salt, say natural food advocates. Their argument is that table salt available commercially is essentially almost all sodium. The refining process strips it of the 80 odd minerals that natural salt has. Switch to unrefined salt, the one which appears off white and has roughly broken granules, rather than bleached white, completely pulverized powder.

• Up the potassium content. Modern food is high on sodium but low on its cousin—potassium. One medical school of thought is that the sodium-potassium balance is vital for health, so eating a potassium-rich diet will negate the ill effects of high sodium. Therefore, they say, that plate of chowmein must be balanced by a banana-chikkoo shake.

If all this food policing sounds exhausting and overwhelming, you would be happy to know that there is a counter view to this entire anti-salt movement. Last September, a federation of Western countries, rejected the limit of 5g as daily salt intake in the United Nations summit for non-communicable diseases in New York. An article in the Scientific American in July 2011 titled It’s time to end the salt wars says the conquering of salt will give us nothing more than bland French fries because the link between dietary sodium and blood pressure is tenuous, at best and cites extensive scientific studies to substantiate this.

You could take either of these viewpoints with a pinch of salt (sorry, irresistible) and choose the path of moderation that wise men down the ages have advocated.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read |Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier articles

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Published: 30 Mar 2012, 01:05 AM IST
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