I, like most Americans, love salt. My ethnic culinary background has made salt a very traditional condiment. (Think chicken soup, koshered fowl, pickles, smoked white fish, hummus, pitas…then add on American potato chips, processed meats, breads, cookies, sauces and salad dressings). I was going to have a string cheese as a snack while I wrote this….but I looked at the wrapper and it contains 210 mg of sodium (remember sodium chloride is salt). And since a quarter of a teaspoon of simple salt is 1.5 gram or 590 mg of sodium, I guess I also won’t salt those carrot sticks.
An article appeared this February in The New England Journal of Medicine that was titled “Compelling Evidence for Public Health Action to Reduce Salt Intake”. Their projections were astonishing. The authors, from The University of California, San Francisco, used a computer program called the Coronary Heart Disease Policy Model to quantify the benefits of reducing dietary salt by 3 grams a day (or in sodium terms, and that’s what you find on food labels… 1200 mg of sodium per day). This reduction would have a tremendous effect, reducing the annual number of new cases of coronary heart disease (CHD) in the U.S. by 60,000 to 120,000, stroke by 32,000 to 60,000 and heart attack by 54,000 to 99,000 and reduce the annual number of deaths from any cause by 44,000 to 92,000. (And, for the mostly women readers of my website…please note that the projected reductions in stroke would be greater among women than men.) All this could save $10 billion to $24 billion in health care costs annually!
In short, salt reduction would be as beneficial as interventions that reduced smoking in the US by 50%, a 5% body mass reduction in all obese adults or the use of drug therapy for people with hypertension and hyper cholesterol levels. Moreover it is probably as important as reducing trans fats in all foods and increasing our consumption of fruits and vegetables. The authors of a commentary in the same issue also point out that salt reduction may reduce risk of gastric cancer, kidney disease, congestive heart failure and osteoporosis.
It turns out that we are a population of salt eaters ….consuming more than in many other developed countries. Although the current guideline for salt consumption by The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services is less than 5.8 g of salt (2300 mg of sodium) with a lower target of 3.7 g of salt per day for persons over 40, blacks and persons with hypertension; the average man in the U.S. consumes 10.6 g of salt per day and the average woman 7.3g per day. And statistics have shown that the amount of salt we consume is on the rise.
So what can we do? Certainly look at labels. Seventy-five percent to 80% of the salt in the U.S. diet comes from processed foods. Our government (doesn’t it always seem to come back to them) should probably begin a program of regulations on the salt content of processed food, make labeling clearer and work with the food industry to reduce salt….it worked for trans fats. And it behooves us, the consumers, to look at those labels, choose less salty alternatives (begin with cans of soup and breads and hey potato chips and pickles may have to go) and of course start using foods that are not processed. (Well at least try in some areas of food preparation….it may be difficult for most of us to bake all our breads or raise our own fowl and meat.) And let’s not forget to diminish the salt intake of children. Between their processed snacks, cereals and the children meals at takeout and eat –in restaurants they are being inundated with salt. Hypertension and plaque build up starts at a very young age as does the preference for salt.
Studies have shown that as salt intake is reduced, children and adults prefer food with less salt. Our taste receptors change over the course of just weeks or a few months. Taste is an acquired sense that can be changed. I for one will try to continue to enjoy what I eat sans excessive salt. (There goes the salt rim on the Margarita glass, oh well….)
One last encouraging note; the article pointed out that even if there was a more modest reduction in our salt intake by as little as 1 g a day there would be a significant projected decline in the annual rates of cardiovascular events and deaths. So if you can’t go salt free try for salt “freer”