by Jennifer Novakovich
Sodium chloride, aka salt, is the most commonly consumed mineral by humans. It is required daily for survival (approximately 500mg), with an exquisite system to ensure its consumption: cravings. Since virtually everyone has about one to two times more salt than what’s needed, the above cravings are unlikely to be driving the current consumption levels, which can be largely attributed to the widespread use of salt in the food industry. Furthermore, there is growing consensus that high sodium intakes cause higher blood pressure, as well as increased risks for stroke, kidney disease, and heart disease. Where did it all start, and what can we do to reduce our intakes of salt? Are there steps we can take to counteract the salt in our diets?
Historically, salt is thought to have been added to food about 10,000 years ago to act as a preservative. Whether humans liked the taste of salt prior to this or grew accustomed to the taste afterwards is up in the air. In any case, something about the consumption of salt lead to a higher preference among our ancestors. As a matter of fact, salt exposure among newborns has been demonstrated to influence the development of salt preferences. Furthermore, contrary to sweetness, salt preferences aren’t seen in newborns and are only observed at about four months of age, with the maturation of a salt taste apparatus. Either way, the degree of salt preference seems to be plastic and revolves to some degree on what’s familiar.
Despite the current recommendations of 2300mg daily (about a teaspoon), adult Americans currently consume 2395–4476mg of sodium per day. Even 2300mg may not be low enough, and in 2010 the dietary guidelines committee recommended reducing population intakes all the way down to 1500mg daily, which is now only recommended for vulnerable populations (e.g. hypertension, diabetes, and kidney disease). They recommended a gradual reduction so populations could adapt to the lower salt content foods without affecting the taste, food safety, and physical characteristics of the food. These are large challenges for the food industry and may require drastic changes in consumer and manufacturer behavior in order to meet the target of 1500mg.
Clearly we like salt. What is it that makes it so appealing to us? The most obvious role of salt is the pleasantly salty taste it creates. Other roles include preservation, stability (e.g. color and texture), and overall flavor of foods. It can suppress certain flavors, especially bitter tastes, and enhance more positive flavor attributes like sweetness. The fact that salt is so effective at boosting the flavor of foods we eat makes it hard to reduce salt without negatively affecting the taste. Moreover, salt alternative options are all around hampered by the fact that tongue salt receptors only respond to sodium, lithium (lithium chloride is toxic), and potassium. While potassium chloride is currently the most popular salt alternative, it has a bitter taste that is hard to hide. Sodium chloride remains the best option when it comes to overall flavor and texture.
As it stands, many large manufacturers have responded to the 1500mg recommendations by announcing plans for sodium reductions of 10–25% within the next few years. By 2006, about 7.5% of the foods sold in the USA made sodium related claims. However, since consumers have generally felt these products lacked taste, many were unsuccessful and reverted back to the original salt content product. Palatability is the biggest barrier for reducing salt in foods and as a result, the FDA opted not to lower the sodium limit for ‘lower-sodium food’ claims from 480mg to 360mg per serving. Although too much salt can be detrimental to human health, we refuse, as a population, to accept or drive forward low salt foods. Why is this? Is taste really that important to us that we are willing to sacrifice our health? Clearly, as seen by the rise of obesity and chronic diseases, taste is very important, but I think that more education on these diseases and on salt is key to our health. There may currently be a lack of awareness about just how important salt reductions are. Knowledge may go a long way in convincing populations to reduce salt intakes.
Since the foods that contribute most to high salt intakes include table salt, meat, bead, dairy, and sauces, if the food industry does not adjust salt contents, consumers may have to make large shifts to diets with virtually no grains or meats if they want to meet the 1500mg recommendations. A hard task for anyone, especially people accustomed to westernized diets (the majority of us). If we want to reduce salt intakes as a population, there need to be major modifications in the U.S. food supply. Furthermore, we need to make these modifications “stick” until populations get used to new, lower sodium foods.
Population levels aside, what can you do personally to reduce and counteract your salt intake? First things first, read the labels and stay away from high sodium foods. Reducing foods that contribute most to our high salt intakes would be the next step. Try to limit the meat, dairy, bakery products, and sauces you consume and shift to eating less processed and refined foods and load up on the good stuff: nuts, seeds, veggies, and fruits. By increasing your consumption of plants, you’ll actually be doing a double whammy in terms of salt since these foods are typically higher in potassium, which is thought to counteract salt in the diet (sodium and potassium work hand in hand to regulate body water levels). In fact, an increased potassium intake was associated with a 24% risk reduction for stroke. Potassium salt replacements may also be something good to try, although the taste needs some getting used to.
While a little salt in the diet is essential, currently we are consuming above and beyond what we need. As a result, whole populations are at higher risks for hypertension as well as increased risks for heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. I’ve given my thoughts, now it’s your turn. What do you think we can do as a population to reduce intakes of salt?
Aburto NJ, Hanson S, Gutierrez H, Hooper L, Elliott P, Cappuccio FP. (2013) Effect of increased potassium intake on cardiovascular risk factors and disease: systematic review and meta-analyses. BMJ. 346:f1378.
DeSimone JA, Beauchamp GK, Drewnowski A, Johnson GH. (2013) Sodium in the food supply: challenges and opportunities. Nutr Rev. 71(1):52-9.
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