Let's Reminisce: How much salt do we need?
By Jerry Lincecum
Oct 23, 2018
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A friend who reads this column regularly suggested I write about salt in foods and how it can affect our health.  She said that on a recent trip to the grocery store, she wanted some soup and upon reading the labels was surprised by the large amount of salt that most of them contain.  By the time we become senior citizens, most of us have been advised by our doctors to limit the amount of salt (sodium chloride) we consume.

A little bit of on-line research convinced me that even if you don't shake salt on your food, chances are you're still eating far too much of it.  Most of the sodium we consume comes from processed and restaurant foods.  The average American currently consumes about 3,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  But the Institutes of Medicine urges limiting that number to between 1,500 and 2,300—less if you're at risk for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.

The first step to reducing your sodium is to cut through some popular misconceptions about salt.  It may surprise you how many sneaky sodium bombs you eat every day. One leading physician writes: “The patients I work with often recognize the obvious sources of sodium in their diet—frozen food entrees, processed snack foods, luncheon meats, canned soups, and cheese.  But they overlook some of the other less obvious sources.” These include restaurant foods, such as prepared pasta sauces, which may contain as much as 900 mg sodium in a half-cup.

Then there are cereals (including some targeted for children that contain 200 to 300 mg sodium per cup); instant bread and muffin mixes; cottage cheese (which can have as much as 400 mg per half-cup); and condiments like ketchup (with as much as 190 mg of sodium per tablespoon).

Most people know that sodium can send your blood pressure soaring, but a too-salty diet over time can also lead to other health problems.  In a diet high in sodium, your kidneys release more water, increasing the volume of blood your heart pumps out second by second.  This puts stress on your heart, because it has to work harder to deliver fresh blood to your organs.  If you know you have an elevated risk for heart disease, it’s best to limit your sodium intake as much as possible.

The reason it’s hard not to exceed the recommended amount of sodium is simple, because in reality it’s a tiny daily allowance.  Just one teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium.  That’s probably too much for Americans age 51 and older, African-Americans, and those with high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.  Those folks need to limit their sodium intake even further, to 1,500 mg daily, or the equivalent of less than 1/2 teaspoon. 

A recent American Heart Association survey of 1,000 American adults found that a majority believed sea salt to be a low-sodium alternative to table salt. The reality is that table salt and sea salt are the same chemically.  The only difference is how the two salts are produced.  Sea salt and regular salt both come from salted bodies of water, but sea salt is produced when salt water evaporates, whereas regular table salt comes from mining underground salt deposits.

It’s easy to add rich, robust flavors to your food without using salt.  Many healthy herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, black pepper, and oregano, have significant antioxidant properties.  Another healthy alternative is salts with seaweeds like kelp in them (for the iodine they supply).

The single most important thing you can do to control your salt intake is cook more of your food at home in your own kitchen.  Resist the temptation to buy already-prepared foods.  Eat fewer restaurant meals.  Think back to the soups and desserts your mother used to make and look for the recipes.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: