Adding salt at the table could shorten your life

New research suggests that always seasoning your meals could take two years off your life



A new study of half a million people in Britain has shown that always adding salt at the table was linked to a shorter life expectancy. Seasoning with salt increased the risk of premature mortality and took 2.3 years off the participants’ life span for men, and 1.5 years for women by the age of 50. This does not include seasoning during the cooking process.

Researchers from Tulane University used data from over 500 000 people in mid life taking part in the UK Biobank study. The participants completed a questionnaire including questions on whether they add salt to their food and how often, and were followed for nine years. People who always seasoned their food had a 28% increased risk of dying prematurely (before the age of 75) compared to those who never or rarely did. The study was published in the European Heart Journal.

Most salt is hidden in processed foods which makes it hard to track how much people are eating. The best measurement would be to use a number of urine samples collected over time, and the researchers found a relationship between frequency of salt added (as recorded in the questionnaires) and spot urinary sodium analysis. As adding salt is a good indicator of a person’s preference for salty foods and accounts for 6-20% of total salt intake, the team chose to use this measurement to explore how salt intake affects life expectancy. 

The study could not completely rule out other factors, such as adding salt being a marker for a less healthy lifestyle overall. However, other factors that could affect life expectancy were accounted for, such as age, sex, ethnicity, deprivation, body mass index, smoking, alcohol, physical activity, diet and medical conditions.

Lead researcher, Prof Lu Qi of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, said: “To my knowledge, our study is the first to assess the relation between adding salt to foods and premature death. Even a modest reduction in sodium intake, by adding less or no salt to food at the table, is likely to result in substantial health benefits, especially when it is achieved in the general population.”

The results also suggested that fruit and veg could go some way to countering the effects of salt, but the effects were not significant in scientific terms. “We were not surprised by this finding as fruits and vegetables are major sources of potassium, which has protective effects and is associated with a lower risk of premature death” Qi said. 

The researchers intend to do more research exploring added salt and the risk of disease.

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of Blood Pressure UK explains: “Salt directly raises blood pressure which is a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes and other catastrophic diseases. By far the most efficient way to reduce blood pressure is to eat less salt. At an individual level, taking the salt shaker off the table is an excellent place to start.”

Hemini Bharadia, Marketing Manager for Blood Pressure UK explains: “We only need a gram or two of salt per day, if that, but most of us eat about eight grams a day and this is pushing up our blood pressure. There are many ways to eat less salt:

  • One is to remove the salt from the table and taste your food first, so you’re not adding it out of habit.
  • The next is to stop adding salt to your cooking and replace it with other flavours such as lemon or chilli. Your taste buds should adjust in a few weeks. Alternatively, you could add a little bit less salt - your taste buds can’t notice a 10% reduction in salt, so you can cut back a little to start with and gradually cut back more and more.
  • The next change you can make is to check the labels of the foods you buy and go for lower salt options. Aim for less than 6g a day.”