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.


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 9th November 2009 / 12:50 pm

    I make our bread (no salt) and buy no salt crisps. as to ‘naturally sweetened biscuits’ erm…do you mean without sugar? sugar is ‘natural’!?
    you can make breadsticks too if you roll the dough thin! breadmakers (and no salt butter) FTW!

  2. MummyInce
    9th November 2009 / 12:53 pm

    I am in total agreement. I too try not to spend too much time worrying about what my one year old eats but mainly because it’s virtually impossible to stick to the guideline amounts. Sugar is another example. A seemingly healthy food like yoghurt or fromage frais usually has sugar listed within the top two ingredients. I’ve found only two brands that contain NO sugar and thankfully both are stocked in my local supermarket (alhough in very small quantities and never with a very long shelf life. Why can’t the manufacturers take on the responsibility an just gradually phase out (or lessen at least) the salt and sugar within our foods. Particularly those aimed directly at children.

  3. 9th November 2009 / 1:07 pm

    I had no idea.
    I’m more worried about sugar, though. That really is in everything, and in huge quantities. Even the ‘healthy’ snacks, like breakfast cereals or crackers.
    Just be glad you’re in Lancashire, not America! It’s much worse over here.

  4. 9th November 2009 / 1:15 pm

    I am driven to distraction trying to keep within the GDA. More needs to be done to force food companies to change.

  5. 9th November 2009 / 1:27 pm

    I used to be very hung up about salt, to the ppoint of obsession with MaxiMad. It is everywhere. I am not a little more relaxed about it, but it is in everything. Thankfully we can get low fat stock and we are even further north than you. I guess its everything in moderation. I never add it when cooking, we dont have it on the table except for fish and chips. We make our own pizza and dough and tend to make breat too – when I can be arsed. Marmite is the devils food!!
    It is down to manufacturers to reduce the salt in foods and also for labling to be clearer. The sodium/salt issue gets quite confusing.
    I am all up for self awareness, but again it is not the parents who are aware that need more information, it is the ones who dish up processed grub every night and dont think about the consequences.

  6. 9th November 2009 / 3:23 pm

    Is it so different from when our parents raised us? To be honest I am now so bombarded with reduce this and reduce that and more of this and mroe of that that my brain is quite literally fried. I find it hard enough to get the five a day down my darlings’ little gullets.
    Obviously I try to keep an eye on it but it gets SO stressful…

  7. angelsandurchinsblog
    9th November 2009 / 5:47 pm

    Eek. Hands up to pesto, Marmite and Rice Crispies. Not to soy sauce though, mine aren’t that sophisticated! Rice Crispies in particular really shouldn’t have loads of salt, you wouldn’t feel on ‘red alert label reading’ mode buying them or serving them. Mine are eating sausages and fruit salad tonight, the former with ketchup. Bet they’ve eaten far too much salt. Will be much more aware from now on, I’ve always been more fat, sugar and e-number aware than salt-conscious.

  8. 9th November 2009 / 10:48 pm

    Aargh, we have a constant salt thing going on here. I like it, add it to my own plate of food (not in large quantities but every day) and my husband never does and doesn’t want me to add it when I cook. I have worked hard at increasing other seasoning like herbs and spices and everything we eat is made from scratch, and much of it grown ourselves. Still bet my intake is a bit high.
    I’ll just go and get a glass of wine to distract myself – oh, maybe not. How about a slice of home made bread and butter then?

  9. 10th November 2009 / 1:30 pm

    I now feel a dreadful mother as I never check the salt intake on anything. Still, I am a carrier of the Marmite-hating gene so I’m hoping that means I’m doing my bit…

  10. 15th November 2009 / 9:45 am

    that is so scary! I’m really conscious of and never add it to cooking, but the girls love pesto, love ham, and love cheese. will have to get my thinking cap on! thanks for the heads up. how do we do the test??