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How to Reduce Salt Intake
A few years ago we were inundated with messages to avoid trans fats and great strides have been taken by both food manufacturers and government to reduce the trans fat in the food supply, but as the saying goes: ‘that is so last year’. Sodium is the new trans fat with the message being loud and clear: we consume far too much. A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that by cutting back on as little as 1/2 teaspoon a day of salt (1200-1500mg of sodium) thousand of lives could be saved by reducing the number of strokes and heart attacks.
Sodium is a mineral found naturally in the environment and therefore in our foods to some extent. This isn’t a bad thing; sodium is an essential mineral. Sodium regulates the total amount of water in the body and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells also plays a role in critical body functions. Many processes in the body, especially in the brain, nervous system, and muscles, require electrical signals for communication. The movement of sodium is critical in generation of these electrical signals.
Throughout human history, getting too much sodium in our diets was never an issue. In fact, the kidneys, which regulate the levels of electrolytes, like sodium, potassium, chloride as well water, are well adapted to excrete excess potassium and hold on to sodium since our diets used to be much higher in potassium and lower in sodium. Our actual physiological requirement for sodium is about 500mg per day. It is estimated that primitive societies, in the absence of pizza and French fries, still managed to get about 1600mg of naturally occurring sodium.
With the exception of traditional fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and tempeh to name a few, foods are naturally very low in sodium and high sodium foods were unheard of unlike today. In fact, so rare was sodium that ancient cultures treated it as a valuable commodity and once traded it at a value twice that of gold.
A Roman’s soldier’s pay used to be given, in part, as salt hence the word ‘salary’ from ‘salarium’. Even the value of salt has been entrenched in some of our everyday expressions, such as, ‘salt of the earth’, or ‘worth his/her weight in salt’.
Where as hypertension, or high blood pressure, has been called ‘the silent killer’ (because it is virtually symptom-less), sodium can be called ‘the quiet or silent food additive’. Unlike other ingredients like vitamin C or potassium-based salt substitutes which are heavily regulated, the addition of sodium flows freely. The problem lies in the fact that there is no standardization with respect to what the sodium content of a food should be and the sodium content of similar foods varies greatly across brands. With respect to restaurant foods, they are exempt from mandatory labeling with respect to sodium content. At this time, any sodium reduction by manufacturers is completely voluntary.
The three main sources of sodium
Processed and prepared foods
Processed and prepared foods use sodium-based additives, such as, sodium benzoate (a mold inhibitor) or salt to add flavoring. These include canned vegetables, soups, luncheon meats, frozen foods, cheese and fast food/take out.
Table salt and condiments
Table salt and sea salts are used in cooking and at the table. This includes seasoning salts like celery or garlic salt, as well as sodium-containing condiments. Condiments, such as, ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, salad dressings and prepared sauces are notoriously high in sodium.
There are also natural sources of sodium, such as, meat, poultry, dairy products and vegetables (sodium is found in both animal and plant cells like it is in our own cells), although this is a much smaller contributor of our sodium intake.
Regarding our intake of sodium, the salt we add during cooking makes up about 5 percent of the total, salt added at the table accounts for about 6 percent, 12 percent comes from natural sources and over 77 percent is from processed and prepared foods.
If we could cut down on the amount of added sodium we get from processed foods, there would be more than enough room in our ‘sodium budget’ to enjoy both the culinary and health benefits of gourmet and sea salts, both rich in minerals.
Doug Cook, RD MHSc CDE is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator who currently works at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and as a nutrition consultant. He practices a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements and natural health products where appropriate. He co-authored Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). In addition, he has served as the nutrition expert for the Ministry of Health’s website healthyontario.com. Visit his website: www.wellnessnutrition.ca.