The time has come. After years of hearing about how unhealthy high-fat and high-sugar foods are, this year we will hopefully hear the same about high-salt foods.
For the past few years some controversy has stirred about salt, which provides the body with sodium. One of the major messages was that you only needed to reduce sodium intake if you already had high blood pressure (hypertension) or heart disease. For healthy people, it didn’t matter as long as you were eating healthy. Also, a 2011 study indicated that low salt intake could be just as bad as high salt intake and had similar risks. However, this association has not been studied in depth.
What has been studied is the impact of high sodium consumption, and recent public health studies seem to confirm the importance of limiting salt intake for everyone. A review from a few months ago found that limiting sodium to the recommended 1,500 mg per day can decrease the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. However, most people take in an average of 3,500 mg a day: more than double!
Just reducing your intake by a little bit may not be enough to save your life. Small reductions may reduce blood pressure, but a review from 2011 showed that small reductions don’t reduce the chances of dying. We need to cut salt consumption by at least 50% in order to see a real preventative impact.
A study published this month by the American Heart Association used computer models and simulations to determine the impact of reducing sodium consumption to 2,200 mg a day. The results are startling. If consumption is reduced over 10 years, we could save up to half a million lives. If we reduce sodium intake even faster, models predict up to 850,000 lives saved.
However, this change can only come through a combination of helping consumers become more vigilant and regulating manufacturers of processed foods. The American lifestyle in general makes it difficult to be selective and find low-salt foods. Also, many manufacturers are unwilling to sacrifice flavor for health. But new research may just help them overcome this hurdle.
One curious fact is that people can be turned off by high amounts of salt just as much as low amounts (think about drinking saltwater). A study that just came out today by Columbia University identified the pathway by which we sense low-salt and high-salt foods. It turns out that high salt concentrations also activate bitter and sour taste buds. In the future, food scientists may be able to manipulate these pathways to make low-salt food taste saltier.
However, this path of inquiry has only just started, and it may be years down the road before any safe salt alternatives are on the market. Also, salt substitutes may pose similar dangers to sugar substitutes (we’ll be addressing these concerns in an upcoming blog post).
For the average consumer, the best thing to do right now would be to keep track of how much salt you take in daily using a food journal (easier than it sounds with phone apps, such as MyFitnessPal). Also, when at the grocery store, check nutrition labels for high amounts of sodium on all food, even those that don’t seem salty. For example, sugary cereals can often contain very high amounts of sodium. As consumers, by buying low-sodium products, we can encourage manufacturers to produce more health-conscious foods while also protecting our own health.
Learn more about healthy eating.