What is common between a packet of chips, a slab of table butter and ready-to-eat noodles – they all contain salt. A study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2019 found that most fast foods and packaged foods sold in India have high levels of salt and fat. This included namkeen, chips, instant noodles, fried chicken, fries, sandwiches and pizzas. In many cases, the salt levels were much higher than the threshold set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Are high salt levels in packaged food a cause for concern?
We all use salt to season food and enhance flavours. From sweet to savoury, it’s an essential ingredient in almost every recipe. But, too much salt is harmful for the body. The sodium in salt is the villain here. It is established that eating too much salt and in turn, too much sodium is a common cause for hypertension as sodium makes the body retain more water. Hypertension on its own is not life-threatening but high blood pressure levels can trigger strokes and heart failures. In such cases, it can be fatal. Eating too much salt can also increase the risk of stomach cancer, osteoporosis and kidney diseases.
How much salt is too much?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), grown-ups should take less than 5 grams of salt a day which is a little less than 1 teaspoon. The amount of salt permitted for children is much lower. It’s interesting to note that around 80% of the salt we eat comes from packaged foods.
According the British Heart Foundation, food that contains more than 1.5g of salt per 100g is considered to have a high salt content and food with less than 0.3g of salt per 100g is considered to have low salt content.
How to check salt on labels?
Salt may be mentioned as salt or sodium on packaged food labels. If the food label mentions only sodium, you can know the weight of salt by multiplying the amount mentioned by 2.5. This means that if a package says it contains 2g of sodium per 100g, it contains 5g of salt in each 100g serving. In the case of food like a packet of cornflakes or noodles, you may not eat the whole packet in one serving. Hence, you should know the amount of salt per portion. To calculate this figure, simply divide the salt concentration per 100g by 100 and then multiply the result by the portion size. When it comes to junk food like chips and cookies, your child may eat the entire packet in one go. Hence, in such cases, don’t look at the portion size on the packet but the weight of the pack.
New labelling norms by FSSAI
As a result of the CSE’s study, the FSSAI has drafted new food labelling regulations. Packaged food with high salt, sugar and fat content will have to list the same on a red colour-coded label on the front of the packet. Once the draft is passed, it will supersede the Food Safety and Standards Regulation 2011. The aim of introducing front-of-the-pack labels for foods with high salt, sugar and fat content is to enable consumers to make informed, healthy choices. The FSSAI plans to implement this change in a phased manner over 3 years. Certain products such as milk and dairy products may be exempted from the new regulations. The FSSAI has also issued an advisory note to state governments and regional offices to look into the possibility of implementing the new regulations in schools and banning the sale of junk food within a 50m radius around schools.
What can you do?
It may be a while before front-of-the-pack labels become the norm. In the meantime, if you shop for packaged foods, don’t go just by the name, instead, look at the label on the back which is in fact the most important part of the packaging.
Measure the salt content on the package against the daily recommended intake and pick food items that contain only a small percentage of this amount. It may take you a few extra minutes but it goes a long way in keeping you healthy.