Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Great Salt Debate

It provides an essential nutrient that is naturally occurring across most of the earth's surface. It is one of the five basic flavors. It is cheap and tasty and is innocently sitting on my table right now, begging me not to betray it. But my dear salt, I must say, you have stirred up quite a controversy.

In the past two weeks salt has come under attack as the latest evil in our food system. Several years ago major cities across the U.S., including New York City and Philly, passed bans on trans fat in restaurants, and most recently the state of California jumped on board in effort to reduce the risks of obesity and heart disease. Now hypertension or high blood pressure is in the spotlight as a major risk factor for chronic conditions like atherosclerosis and kidney failure, among others. One of the real threats it poses is that it goes largely undiagnosed - many people don't know they're prehypertensive, so they don't take the necessary precautions to avert the full blown diagnosis. Reduction of sodium intake is one of the ways shown to reduce hypertension leading to arguments that propose decreasing the amounts of sodium in our food supply by federal mandate. For years the FDA has requested this voluntarily of food manufacturers, but with little compliance, increasingly bleak health statistics, and a new report issued by the Institute of Medicine, The Washington Post reported that the FDA may soon impose sodium restrictions.

Not surprisingly this has generated some outrage. It does set something of a bad precedent - oh now, wait, that bad precedent was set by Prohibition. Granted, this opinion piece in the New American crying "nanny state" is not entirely reflective of my beliefs (especially the reader comments), nor is it entirely correct, particularly in it's mention of kosher foods (no, kosher foods will not be supervised by federal authorities instead of rabbis!) but it does make the point that it can be a slippery slope when the government intervenes in personal health in this way (though, for the record, I'd be okay with federally mandated exercise). Since salt is only one in a host of factors leading to hypertension, the FDA is ignoring some other important facts.

Salt is essential to the body. It plays an important role in balancing fluids and other key minerals like potassium and calcium. The ban itself gives salt a bad name and that can be misleading to the public. I realized this the other day while leading a grocery tour (been doing a lot of these lately) and I pointed out the sea salt to a group doing a detox. "Salt is ok?" one of them asked. I explained that not only was salt okay, but sea salt contains many other minerals that were health promoting. And, I pointed out, your food tastes pretty bland without it. Not because adding salt makes it salty. Actually, one of the reasons salt is added when cooking is that it is a taste enhancer and modifier. If you've ever made a soup without any salt it probably tasted like ... nothing. You may see the vegetables or beans in it, but they haven't released their flavors. A pinch of salt while cooking could have saved your soup. Adding salt to a dish after it has been cooked only adds salt to your tongue registering "salty" on your taste buds. Salt is so important that Harold McGee devotes close to five pages to it in his encyclopedic tome, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The ban is not meant to deter people from cooking with salt, in fact if you refer to the table in the Washington Post article, that only accounts for 5% of salt intake. Additionally, there are ways to prepare foods with herbs and spices that decrease the need for salt, so that a minimal amount is required. The intended target is the food manufacturers who account for 77%. Why is there so much sodium added to processed foods and why can't they reduce it? A quick glance at the IOM's prepublished report, Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States, provided this nugget:
Many foods prepared by manufacturers and in foodservice operations are necessarily highly processed; they are cooked at high temperatures for relatively long periods of time, and they must remain acceptable for extended periods. These contingencies may work against using certain flavoring techniques and fresh ingredients to reduce salt in some parts of the food supply. Further work to find alternative approaches is required.

So the question for the average American consumer remains: what's the deal with salt? Well, it depends. Are you at risk for hypertension? This is information worth knowing. Regardless, it's a good idea to decrease your intake of processed foods. But if that's not an option, a great way to offset sodium intake is to increase potassium which is found in plants. The Nutrition Action Newsletter offers some great ideas on how to defuse a salt mine by adding more vegetables to your meal. (A good rule of thumb when in nutritional doubt is to add more vegetables.) Increase your water intake, increase exercise and live healthfully. And then you can choose whether to add a grain of salt.


  1. Here's a great piece about sugar, which I think presents a greater public health problem than salt right now: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-beres/navigating-the-business-o_b_561158.html

  2. I think that it is a GREAT idea for the government to regulate the amount of salt that food manufacturers can put into processed food. If they have to use less salt, their food is going to taste pretty nasty, then maybe less people will eat it!

  3. i avoid salt by eating whole foods. fresh foods are so delicious, they don't even need the added flavor! i like your ending: "increase water intake, increase exercise and live healthfully" - that totally sums it up.

  4. I love salt! But that video of the arteries was kind of scary!