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Salt At A Glance

It’s essential for life, yet also associated with numerous health risks. Salt can get confusing. That's why in this primer, we explain what it is, why we need it, when it becomes dangerous and how to cut down.

This mineral is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous seasonings in the world. Evidence of its use dates back to over 8,000 years ago, in what is present-day Romania and China. You almost definitely have some in your home right now. While we take it for granted today, this seemingly-innocuous seasoning has been central to wars and used in numerous religious ceremonies since antiquity.

We are of course talking about salt. Composed mostly of sodium chloride, this naturally occurring dietary staple is essential for humans and animals like. Here’s everything you need to know about salt:

Why do we need it?

Salt contains sodium which is required for muscle contractions, including those of the largest muscle in the body: The heart. It’s also responsible for nerve function, enabling the transmission of impulses throughout the body. Salt also regulates fluid balance in the body by controlling blood pressure and volume. You may have noticed while cooking that salt attracts and holds water. That’s why we use it to extract liquids from chicken or eggplants. Similarly, sodium in the body affects fluid in blood and around cells.

For optimal function, your body needs a meager 500 g per day. To put it into perspective, that’s under a ¼ teaspoon! In the standard American diet, the average person is often consuming far more sodium than this on a daily basis.

When is it too much?

You may have heard that Americans consume sodium in excess. You may have also noticed that nowadays, many packaged foods are labeled “low sodium” (140 mg of sodium or less per serving) or “sodium-free” (less than 5 mg of sodium per serving). 

According to the American Heart Association, you should consume no more than 2,300 mg per day. Ideally, you’d eat even less – under 1,500 mg per day. 2,300 mg is roughly the equivalent of one teaspoon of salt.

Excessive consumption of sodium is strongly associated with high blood pressure. As previously discussed, sodium attracts water. Therefore, a diet high in sodium draws excessive water into your bloodstream. Your blood vessels can’t expand to accommodate this extra liquid, and so your blood pressure increases. This puts immense strain on your arteries and organs, such as the kidneys, heart, brain and eyes.

Sustained high blood pressure over time, known as hypertension, can lead to increased risk of numerous potentially fatal health issues. These include heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease and blindness.

Plus, the older you get, the more vigilant you should be about your sodium consumption. In general, blood pressure increases with age, thus making older populations more susceptible to hypertension induced by excessive sodium intake.

How can we cut down on sodium?

Believe it or not, your salt shaker may not be to blame. Over 70% of the sodium Americans consume in the standard diet comes from packaged foods and prepared restaurant meals. Used as both a preservative and a taste enhancer, salt is a major flavor booster, with saltiness being one of the five basic tastes (others are sweet, bitter, sour and umami). Seeing as salt tastes great, it’s no surprise that companies profiting off our addiction to salt would include so much of it in their products.

Here are 5 simple ways to ensure you’re consuming safe levels of salt in your diet:

  1. As we always recommend at Clean Eating, stick to wholesome, natural, preservative-free foods. This isn’t limited to produce. Stick to fresh meat, poultry and seafood, too.
  2. If eating canned fruits and vegetables, give them a rinse in a colander before consuming. Canned produce is often kept in salted water as a preservative.
  3. Avoid packaged foods and “instant” products as much as possible. This includes sauces and mixes. Instead, opt to make your own sauces from scratch. Not only can you control how much sodium is used, you can also customize using ingredients you love and know are beneficial for your body.
  4. When consuming packaged foods, check the nutritional facts label on the packaging for both sodium content and serving size. This will give you an idea of how much sodium you’re consuming based on the amount of the packaged food you’re eating. If you’re at risk for hypertension, it’s essential for you to vigilantly check nutritional labels because it isn’t only salty-tasting foods that are high in sodium. Breads and cereals can also contain high levels.
  5. When eating at a restaurant, ask for high-sodium additives, such as sauces and dressings, on the side. This allows you to control how much sodium-rich flavoring you’re adding to your meal.

For more CE-approved intel on maintaining healthy blood pressure via dietary habits and supplementation, check out the following reads: