October 30, 2012
We're constantly hearing about our nation's obesity epidemic, and I'm not going to lie – it is a major problem. But what about salt, that other contributor to cardiovascular woes? We need sodium (the chemical name for salt) for fluid balance, but only in very small amounts. At maximum, healthy adults can have up to 2,300 mg per day without adverse effects like high blood pressure.
For people at risk (adults over age 51; African Americans; people with diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease), sodium intake should be limited to just 1,500 mg per day. According to the CDC, the average American has way more at nearly 3,500 mg of sodium per day. Clearly, our taste for salt is an issue that cannot be ignored.
Sodium chloride, or table salt, is just one source of dietary sodium. Sodium can be added to foods in lots of ways. To name a few, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium nitrate (a preservative in some cured meats), or sodium acetate (a flavoring agent) are commonly found on food labels. In fact, a whopping 75% of our sodium intake comes from processed items like canned and packaged goods, frozen meals and snacks, and fast food.
Some companies have started to reduce sodium levels in their products as part of the National Sodium Reduction Initiative. This is a great step in the right direction. But in the meantime, there are still other companies that are not on board. Further, some are still fooling consumers by reformulating their products to be flavored with sea salt, a "healthier" alternative.
Because sea salts are formed by evaporation rather than being mined from the ground, they are often perceived as more "natural" – and therefore, healthier. Sadly, sea salt is not any better for you than regular old table salt. By weight, they have the same amount of sodium.
Granted, sea salts may have small amounts of minerals that can give distinct flavors. This may allow you to use less – theoretically reducing your sodium intake. Unfortunately, the difference probably won't be very significant.
Another concern is that sea salts are not iodized like table salt. Replacing table salt with sea salt can actually put you at risk for developing thyroid problems.
The point is, salt is salt. Look at the Nutrition Facts label to get the real picture and ignore marketing ploys. The exception to this rule is products that are labeled "healthy," "lite," or "light." These terms are regulated by the FDA, so the food must conform to certain standards. Light or lite versions will have at less 50% less sodium than their regular counterparts, so these are legitimately better options. They may still be high in sodium, though, so always check that label and consider serving size.
It also helps to have a light hand with the salt shaker. Salt added during cooking or as seasoning contributes 10-15% of our sodium intake. Instead, try cooking with herbs and spices for exciting flavors, lemon juice or vinegar for tartness, and onion and garlic for savory flair. Pre-mixed herb blends work well if you're in a hurry, but read the Nutrition Facts label, as many still contain significant amounts of sodium. Salt substitutes (e.g., Nu-Salt) are good options, too. Just make sure to check with your doctor before using since they can interfere with certain medications.
Bottom line, the best way to lower your sodium intake is to cut down on processed foods. Now I'm a realistic dietitian – I know most people will find this difficult. Processed foods are cheap, convenient, and tasty. Start by choosing reduced sodium or "light" versions, then progress to no salt added or sodium-free. Your taste buds will adjust over time and your blood pressure just might, too.