Taking it with a pinch of salt – whether you know it or not

Image: FlickrFor the last month, we’ve been testing a new iPhone application from the Food Standards Agency to help us see how much salt we’re eating. To be honest, I was a bit blasé when I agreed to test it out – I’ve always been pretty conscious of our salt consumption and I haven’t added any salt to anything I’ve cooked since Flea was born.

Flea rarely eats what I’d consider to be processed foods – most of her meals are cooked from scratch and I make a point of stocking up on things like salt-free cereals and virtually salt-free stock cubes when we travel down South (when I asked for salt-free stock and naturally sweetened biscuits in our local supermarket, they looked at me like I was insane). I’ve never given Flea crisps because I know they contain a terrible amount of salt, although she’ll have the odd packet if we’re out for lunch or visiting friends.

Even so, on three out of four weeks, we went over Flea’s recommended daily salt intake on two or more days.

A typical day’s food for Flea might be: Marmite on toast for breakfast with grapes and orange juice, then a mid-morning snack of breadsticks (I can’t get the salt-free version in Lancashire, and we currently don’t have a stash)  and houmous. For lunch, she might have a sandwich with cheese and an apple, then for dinner it would be pasta and pesto with some chicken.

That’s not what I’d consider to be ‘junk’ food, and there’s no added salt. But this represents a salt intake of 3.5g – more than 50% more than the recommended total daily intake. Scary, right?

Since taking part in the trial, I’ve been much more careful with Flea’s cheese intake – replacing some of the pesto with passata and the cheese sandwiches with egg or chicken.

I think I’ve learned two things from this experiment. First, even if you’re careful it’s incredibly easy to give children too much salt. Pesto, cheese, ham, Marmite and other seemingly innocent foods need to be mixed with salt-free alternatives. It’s not jus about not adding salt to the pan, and only letting them have packets of crisps on the weekend.

The second thing is that it is hard to live within the FSA guidelines – and partly because so many products have too much salt in them when we buy them. Yes, you can buy salt-free or low-salt versions of things like breadsticks, stock and cereals but none of those things are easy to find in Lancashire, where we live. How many people are going to go online to buy those things from half a dozen different online stores? Shouldn’t I be able to buy them in Sainsbury’s? Shouldn't the major manufacturers stop sticking so much salt in their food in the first place?

I’m really glad, though, that the FSA is taking steps to increase people’s awareness of salt consumption by children. Only last week, a friend told me she’d started adding salt to her cooking because she’s convinced that her little girl’s muscle cramps are down to salt deficiency. The reality is that if your cupboard, like mine, contains Rice Krispies, Marmite, pesto and soy sauce, your kids’ salt intake is probably more than you imagine.

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