Adding an extra sprinkle of salt to food at the dinner table is linked to an increased risk of early death from all causes, according to a new study of over 500,000 people. In fact, always reaching for the salt shaker at the table could up a person’s risk of dying prematurely by as much as 28 percent, the research suggests.
Their life expectancy could take a hit too: At age 50, women and men who always added extra salt had 1.5 and 2.28 years respectively knocked off their life expectancy, the study, published in the European Heart Journal, found.
“To my knowledge, our study is the first to assess the relation between adding salt to foods and premature death,” lead researcher Professor Lu Qi said in a statement.
“It provides novel evidence to support recommendations to modify eating behaviours for improving health. 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.”
Assessing an individual’s salt intake is difficult. Before we add our own seasoning, many foods (especially those that are processed) already contain a large amount of salt. While urine tests can provide a snapshot of salt intake, they do not represent overall intake. Hence, the authors of the study decided to use the addition of salt at the table – not including salt added during cooking – in their analysis.
In the western world, around 70 percent of sodium intake comes from processed and prepared foods, and between 8 and 20 percent can be attributed to salt added at the table.
“Adding salt to foods at the table is a common eating behaviour that is directly related to an individual’s long-term preference for salty-tasting foods and habitual salt intake,” Qi said.
“[It] provides a unique way to evaluate the association between habitual sodium intake and the risk of death.”
The findings are based on data from 501,379 people involved in the UK Biobank study, who joined between 2006 and 2010 and were followed for an average of nine years. When joining, each completed a questionnaire asking how often they add salt to their food: never/rarely, sometimes, usually, or always.
After controlling for other factors that could affect the results, including age, sex, diet, and existing medical conditions, the researchers identified an increased risk of premature death – before 75 years old – in individuals who always opted for extra salt, compared to those who rarely or never did.
As for what this could mean for public health, the researchers are careful not to get ahead of themselves:
“Further studies are needed to validate the findings before making recommendations,” Qi said.
Such recommendations are difficult to make on an individual basis, Professor Annika Rosengren of the University of Gothenburg, who was not involved in the research, said in an editorial accompanying the paper. We cannot cut salt out of our diets entirely, but are yet to agree upon a “sweet spot” of salt consumption.
“So far, what the collective evidence about salt seems to indicate is that healthy people consuming what constitutes normal levels of ordinary salt need not worry too much about their salt intake,” Rosengren explained.
However, people at high risk – such as those with high blood pressure – and a high salt intake “are probably well advised to cut down, and not adding extra salt to already prepared foods is one way of achieving this,” she said.
Eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables could help offset the harmful effects of salt on both an individual and population level, Rosengren added. This is supported by the study, which also found that the risk of premature death was reduced in people who ate the highest amount of fruit and veg, although the results were not statistically significant.
Alternatively, if fruit and veg aren’t your thing, these electric chopsticks could offer a novel way to reduce salt intake without compromising on delicious salty flavor.