Insidious health threat, or innocent flavor enhancer? Take a closer look at the planet’s tastiest mineral
America has declared war on salt. The nutrition militia, claiming that the enemy is attacking you and your buddies, points to hypertension stats: More than 20 percent of American men between 35 and 44 have high blood pressure. Even the Institute of Medicine is leaning on the government to set standards for sodium content in foods; and the American Heart Association, along with the City of New York and 30 other cities, is promoting a new National Salt Reduction Initiative.
So should you enlist? It’s a tough battle. “If people want to avoid salt, they really can’t—not unless they skip processed, prepared, and restaurant foods,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
20 Little changes you can make today for a healthier life.
What’s more, salt may not even be the true enemy. Before you sign up to fight, tune out the hysteria and plunge into the latest nutrition intel.
Can I live without salt?Nope
Salt is essential to health. Your body can’t make it, and your cells need it to function, says Aryan Aiyer, M.D., director of the heart center at Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh medical center. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends consuming at least 3.8 grams of salt a day (just over 1/2 teaspoon), mainly for the sodium.
Eat this, not that: The 30 saltiest foods in America.
Sodium is an electrolyte, a humble member of that hyped class of minerals that help maintain muscle function and hydration; that’s why sport drinks contain sodium. You’re constantly losing sodium through sweat and urine, and if you don’t replenish that sodium and water, your blood pressure may drop far enough to make you dizzy and light-headed. “Sodium acts like a sponge to help hold fluids in your blood,” says Rikki Keen, R.D., an adjunct instructor of dietetics and nutrition at the University of Alaska.
However, people who chug too much water can lower their sodium levels so far that they develop hyponatremia, a potentially deadly condition more common among recreational exercisers than professional athletes, says Marie Spano, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Atlanta. Salt does more than just make our food taste good; without it, we’d die.
Do I need to watch my salt intake like a hawk?Not necessarily
If you have high blood pressure, you’ve probably been advised to cut back on salt. The mechanism seems clear: Sodium causes your blood to hold more water, so your heart has to pump harder, making your blood pressure rise. If your blood pressure is already high, that’s a problem. (A high intake of salt can also be dangerous for people who are salt-sensitive—that is, they have trouble excreting excess salt.)
20 Ways to beat high blood pressure.
What if you’re a healthy guy? The Institute of Medicine is adamant in recommending that people ages 14 and over consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day—about a teaspoon of salt. The Institute of Medicine sets a lower limit (1,500 milligrams, or slightly more than 1/2 teaspoon) for middle-aged and older adults, African Americans, and people with kidney disease, hypertension, or diabetes.
But even though the average American blows past both limits, consuming an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, some experts say that’s not a problem for most men. “I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that healthy men with normal blood pressure should reduce their sodium intake,” says Michael Alderman, M.D., a professor of medicine at Yeshiva University.
For starters, reducing the salt content of your diet could adversely affect your health, Dr. Alderman says. In a study review published in the Journal of Hypertension, people who reduced their sodium intake by about 1,000 milligrams experienced lower blood pressure, but also higher heart rates and decreased insulin sensitivity, which can raise diabetes risk. Because of these effects, he says, we need clinical trials to determine whether lowering salt intake actually improves health outcomes in the general population.
And let’s not forget that sodium isn’t the only blood-pressure booster. “The huge message everyone overlooks is that being overweight also contributes to high blood pressure,” says Spano.
Can anything I eat counteract the effect of salt on my BP?Yes
Quick biology lesson: Your body is constantly balancing the sodium on the outside of each cell and the potassium on the inside. A 2006 statement from the American Heart Association in the journal Hypertension revealed that an increase in potassium can lower blood pressure just as much as a decrease in sodium can. Even the Institute of Medicine doesn’t deny this: “The sodium:potassium ratio is typically more closely associated with blood pressure than with intake of either substance alone.”
Unfortunately, supersalty processed meals tend to crowd out our main dietary sources of potassium—fresh fruits and vegetables. Nutrition surveys reveal that younger men consume only about 60 percent to 70 percent of the recommended daily intake: 4,700 milligrams of potassium. Imagine the effect on our blood pressure levels if fast-food cashiers always asked, “You want broccoli with that?"
Should I cut back on salt when I cook?Don’t bother
Tossing some salt into your pasta water isn’t likely to send your blood pressure soaring. That’s because 77 percent of the sodium in the average diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 12 percent of sodium is naturally occurring in foods, and just 5 percent comes from home cooking.
So there’s no need to ban salt from your house or buy an additive-laden salt substitute—especially since salt is an important seasoning and the only natural source of that basic taste, says Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking. After all, our brains evolved to crave salt because it’s necessary for survival, says Leslie Stein, Ph.D., a senior research associate at Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia. Salt creates a fuller mouthfeel when you eat, while suppressing bitterness and releasing sweetness. In fact, without a decent hit of salt, many foods would taste flat, not flavorful. It’s also essential in the chemistry of baking, says Stein. Stick with kosher salt for cooking and try flaky sea salt for finishing a dish; both types are free of additives.
Why are so many processed foods packed with salt?It’s complicated
Sure, salt makes food taste good. But that’s not the only reason fast-food meals and processed foods are laced with it.
For starters, people become hooked on the flavor profile of familiar products, says Howard Moskowitz, Ph.D., a food scientist and cofounder of the journal Chemical Senses. “They’ve become accustomed to this richer, deeper taste due to salt. Take out the salt, and people will complain and stop buying the product.”
Salt also masks off-flavors created during the production of processed foods while acting as a preservative and improving texture and color. And let’s face it, where else can a $600 billion industry find an ingredient that can do so much, so cheaply? Whether or not salt itself is dangerous for you, it can definitely run with a bad crowd.