The food that we eat in the Netherlands contains much too much salt. There’s so much that it’s virtually impossible for people to eat healthily, says Gerjan Navis, professor of experimental nephrology at the University of Groningen. ‘The consequences are subtle, but definitely not good for the health’, according to Navis. ‘Anyone with a tendency to high blood pressure or heart or kidney problems is running a significant risk.’
Even if you ignore the salt cellar while eating or cooking, you still consume salt. Navis: ‘About eighty percent of the salt we consume is hidden in our food. Someone with a normal appetite thus consumes about five or six grams of salt too much each day. In a pizza, for example, there's enough salt for several days, no less than twenty grams! You won’t notice much in the short term, but once you get older the consequences are huge.’
A great number of years can pass before the consequences of excessive salt consumption actually manifest themselves, because heart and kidney damage are mainly age-related diseases. Navis: ‘When you’re young you won’t notice anything about a daily salt excess. Even if you are likely to develop high blood pressure, it can remain undetected until you’re quite old. However, throughout the intervening years, damage to your cardiovascular system and your kidneys can be progressing unnoticed – and often you only notice once the damage is considerable.
One example of a disease where excessive salt intake may play a role in undetected heart and kidney damage is type 2 diabetes, a disease that generally manifests itself at a later age and is usually preceded by a long period of being overweight. ‘When the diagnosis is made, at least half of these people already have heart and kidney damage – damage that has been building up unnoticed over more than thirty years. Our research has revealed that excessive salt in the overweight phase leads to extra strain on the heart and the kidneys. That could be an important factor in the heart and kidney damage discovered later, precisely because it has been undetected for so long.
Traditionally, salt was used as a preservative to prevent food going off. ‘Nowadays we have fridges. We simply don’t need so much salt in our food any more.’ The main reason why our food has more and more salt in it is a question of taste. Salt is a taste that you get used to. ‘We’ve got so used to eating salty food that we think that food with less salt is tasteless. The good news, however, is that your taste buds adjust if you eat much less salty food for a while.’
The food industry has also realised that the salt content has to be reduced. Navis: ‘Although there’s a great deal of discussion, even with the government and internationally, no producer would ever consider being the first to put less salt in its products. Something that is perceived as being tasteless will not sell, and producers are in it for the money, after all.’ The solution is cooperation; adapt salt use across the food industry simultaneously. However, before such an agreement is reached by the food industry, Navis fears years will have passed.
According to Navis, the government should act in a much more active way. ‘Set fixed targets, so that within five years we are consuming at least one gram of salt less per day, and another gram less after another five years,’ is Navis’s suggestion. ‘It was possible to set targets for CO2 emissions, so why not with the salt content of our food. It’s easy to measure how much salt a person eats by checking their urine; that’s something we do in the major LifeLines project, for example. This data is perfect for checking where we are today, and what needs to be adapted.’
‘Of course people can do something about their salt intake themselves. One major way would be to give up eating ready meals and partially cooked meals and cook everything yourself using fresh ingredients. Unfortunately, not many people are willing to listen to this message’, says Navis. ‘The same applies to preventive campaigns against smoking and alcohol abuse. The group of people who would benefit the most from a different lifestyle are the ones you don’t reach – people with a low level of education and not much money.’
Make it easier to eat healthily with less salt. You can say that people should exercise more, but only if you make it easier for them to actually do so – think of more playing fields in the city or fewer elevators – will it really have an effect. The same applies to food, states Navis. Make sure that healthy food with less salt is more easily available. ‘There’s an incredible interest in health, but only by making it easier for people to choose for their health will they keep up a healthy lifestyle.’
Prof. Gerjan Navis (Groningen, 1956) studied Medicine at the University of Groningen. She is an internist-nephrologist and works as professor of Experimental Nephrology at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Groningen.
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