SINGAPORE — In an effort to eat healthily, people may try to make better food choices when they dine out or at home, choosing to eat a bowl of noodle soup instead of fried food at the hawker centre, or have a salad or a “cleaner” lunch.
Yet, even when they choose one of these seemingly healthier food options, they might be exceeding the daily limit of sodium intake.
High sodium intake is among the pressing public health concerns in Singapore, with nine in 10 people here consuming almost double the recommended daily limit by the World Health Organization, which is 2,000mg of sodium — equivalent to 5g or slightly less than a teaspoon of salt.
Salt is made up of 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride.
Findings from the National Nutrition Survey 2022 here showed that the daily sodium intake of Singapore residents rose from 3,480mg in 2019 to 3,620mg last year.
Along with this was a drastic increase in the proportion of people with hypertension, or high blood pressure.
In 2021 and 2022, more than a third of Singaporeans (37 per cent) were found to have hypertension. The figure was nearly double of the 19.8 per cent in 2010.
The chronic disease — which increases the risk of life-threatening illnesses such as kidney failure, stroke and heart attacks — does not affect only older adults.
Professor Tan Huay Cheem, senior consultant at the National University Heart Centre, Singapore, pointed out that around one in 12 (8.1 per cent) of young people between 18 and 29 years old have hypertension, based on the recent National Population Health Survey.
Prof Tan, who is chairman of the Singapore Heart Foundation, added: “For this young population, the risk of developing cardiovascular complications in future is significant.”
He recently spoke at the Symposium on Sodium Reduction in Singapore and the Role of Salt Substitutes, which took place at the Lifelong Learning Institute on Oct 21.
Organised by the Singapore Heart Foundation, the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association, and National Kidney Foundation, the event featured talks and discussions on reducing sodium intake and the prevalence of heart and kidney-related illnesses in the population here.
WHERE ARE THE HIDDEN SALT IN FOOD?
Senior dietitian Natalie Yeo from the Singapore Heart Foundation said that a major source of sodium comes from salt and sauces added during food preparation and cooking, as well as in meals sold at eating places.
“Some foods such as bread, breakfast cereals and processed meats are fairly rich in sodium, too. And all of these can add up,” she said.
Some foods are obviously high in salt (such as fries, bacon, tinned and preserved food), but you will also need to look out for the less obvious choices that may be loaded with sodium. For example:
- A bowl of fish ball noodle soup contains at least 2,900mg of sodium, which exceeds more than 100 per cent of the daily recommended sodium limit
- A bowl of lor mee (noodles with starchy gravy) contains about 2,500mg of sodium, most of which is found in the thick gravy
- A bowl of mee soto (yellow noodles with shredded chicken in spicy soup) has 2,600mg to 3,700mg
- A piece of masala thosai (crispy crepe with spiced potato and onion filling) contains around 780mg of sodium
- Thousand Island dressing (commonly used in salads) contains 863mg of sodium per 100g. Add grated parmesan cheese (about 1,500mg per 100g) and croutons (about 700mg per 100g), and a serving of salad will easily exceed the daily recommended sodium limit
- Even the healthier versions of bread such as wholemeal bread, focaccia and French baguette are relatively high in sodium, with each 100g serving containing around 500mg
- Steamed dim sum: Three pieces of steamed prawn dumplings contain 222mg of sodium, and two rolls of chee cheong fun (steamed rice rolls) with sweet sauce will add on another 400mg
The sodium content for each dish or food item may vary, depending on how it is prepared.
WHAT ABOUT SODIUM IN DRINKS?
Sports drinks are promoted to help replenish electrolytes, fluids and glucose lost during a strenuous workout, improve endurance and energy levels.
Steer clear of these drinks if you are watching your sodium intake and not exercising vigorously or for extended periods of time.
Sports drinks contain electrolytes such as sodium and potassium.
Depending on the brand, the sodium content for every 100ml of the drink can range from 46mg to 92mg. For example, a 325ml can of 100 Plus contains around 150mg of sodium.
Such drinks are designed for use during exercise sessions that last more than 90 minutes, Ms Yeo said.
“They are more suited to support athletes during their training by fuelling energy to the muscles and brain,” she added.
“It is not a good idea to turn to electrolyte drinks as a go-to beverage because it is possible to over-indulge.
“If the individual is not doing a vigorous workout, it could add to his or her overall calorie and sugar intake, too.”
WHY ARE PEOPLE TAKING MORE SALT?
Ms Yeo said that the increase in salt intake and hypertension numbers reflects evolving lifestyles and dietary habits among Singaporeans.
“For example, individuals with busy and hectic lifestyles tend to eat out more than cook.
“Without being mindful, sodium intake could quickly add up while dining out regularly,” she said.
“Also, there is an increasing availability of processed foods on the go, as well as a wide variety of choices available through food delivery services.”