For the human body, salt is at the same time a necessary mineral and a deadly one. In ancient times, it was so coveted, that Roman soldiers received their pay in salt (the term “salary” from the latin for salt – “sal”).
Salt has been used for centuries as a natural preservative for meats and vegetables. That’s not the reason the food industry like to use it, though. Salt makes food taste better, is widely available and it is extremely cheap. It can help mask the subpar flavor of the main ingredients in a processed food.
The result is that we consume too much salt for our own good. The problematic component of salt is sodium. Too much sodium results in high blood pressure, heart attacks, kidney disease, and other maladies.
Current health recommendations are to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day if you are a healthy adult. For people over the age of 45, African Americans, and those suffering from high blood pressure, that value is 1,500 mg.
Unfortunately, the average consumption of sodium in the US is almost double what it should be – close to 4000 mg a day. Most of the salt in our diet comes from processed food – either packaged foods we buy at the supermarket, or meals served in restaurants and fast-food establishments.
An estimated 100,000 lives could be saved each year if Americans halved their sodium intake. But both the food industry and individuals are hooked on salt. People like salty food. Reduce the salt and food will not taste as good, which will lead people to buy a different brand. This is why food companies are not in a rush to halve the salt in their products, or reduce it by even 10 percent.
The good news is that gradually reducing the saltiness in common foods is a proven and effective way to decrease sodium consumption. Our taste buds can acclimate to small changes over time, until the bliss point for optimal “saltiness” of a food is much lower than at start.
In Finland, a country with very high sodium intake, the government has been working with the food industry since the 1970′s to gradually reduce sodium across the board, with positive results. Unfortunately, our FDA is often powerless in dealing with the food lobbies.
This means that we the people, as usual, need to fend for ourselves. The fastest way to reduce sodium consumption is to eat more home cooked meals. (A side benefit will be lower calories and less sugar consumed as well!).
The Sodium-to-Calorie Ratio
When buying groceries, you can quickly gauge if a product is too salty by comparing the sodium to calorie ratio. The logic is simple: if a standard 2000 calorie diet calls for 2300mg of sodium, that means that for each calorie, you should be getting 1.15mg of sodium on average. Round this to 1.0 mg of sodium per calorie.
If the sodium to calorie ratio is 1.0 or lower (the the value for sodium is less than or equal to the calorie count), the food is fine. If the value is 2.0 or higher, it is high in salt. That’s not necessarily bad if you are having a savory snack, but you should be minded to this ratio so you can check your consumption throughout the day. Aim for most of your foods to stay below a ratio of 1.0.
Example: A serving of Cheerios cereal has 140mg of sodium per 100 calorie serving. That’s a ratio of 1.4, higher than you would want.
Projected Effect of Dietary Salt Reductions on Future Cardiovascular Disease - Bibbins-Domingo, Chertow, Coxson, Moran, Lightwood, Pletcher, Goldman – New England Journal of Medicine, 2/18/2010
Sodium in the Finnish diet: 20-year trends in urinary sodium excretion among the adult population -Laatikainen, Pietinen1, Valsta, Sundvall, Reinivuo, Tuomilehto – European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2/2006