Q: Is it really that important to watch our salt intake?
A: According to Karen Hudson, a registered dietitian with Kansas State University’s human nutrition department, the benefit of reducing salt intake was reaffirmed by a study reported in the January 2010 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Scientists from the University of California-San Francisco, Stanford University and Columbia University used the coronary heart disease policy model to calculate benefits for a population-wide reduction in dietary salt up to 3 grams (1,200 milligrams of sodium) a day. Using this model which analyzed the results from previous studies to estimate the benefit of reducing dietary sodium’s impact on blood pressure and its impact on heart disease, they projected there would be 54,000 to 99,000 fewer heart attacks and 44,000 to 92,000 fewer deaths from all causes each year if Americans would limit their consumption of salt by even 1/2 teaspoon a day. The body of evidence that reducing sodium can have a significant population-wide health benefit is growing and has gained the support of the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Society of Hypertension and the World Health Organization.
Q: Don’t we need to eat some salt?
A: Sodium, one of the two ions that make up salt (sodium chloride), is an essential ingredient for life. It helps keep the body’s fluids in balance and is necessary for proper functioning of nerves and muscles. In ancient times and before refrigeration became available, salt was important in food preservation. Today we know that it enhances flavor and color and serves as a stabilizer of foods. However, as essential as this substance is for life, we only need a small amount.
Q: How much salt is recommended per day?
A: The United States Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Human Services and the American Heart Association currently recommend most Americans limit their daily intake of sodium to 2,300 milligrams (that’s one teaspoon of salt). For those who are 40-plus years, African-American or who have hypertension, it is suggested that they cut their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams each day. Unfortunately, the average intake is much higher (approximately 5,000 milligrams of sodium).
Q: What foods have the most sodium?
A: Approximately 10 percent of the total salt we eat occurs naturally in our food, 5-10 percent we add as we prepare and eat food, leaving about 75-80 percent of the sodium being added in one form or another by the commercial food industry and restaurants.
Commercially prepared foods such as tomato sauce, soups, canned foods, prepared mixes, deli meats and salad dressings are often very high in sodium. Even breads and crackers can have considerable amount of hidden sodium.
Although our taste buds have become accustomed to a high level of salt in the typical diet, this preference can be modified — but it takes time and patience. Some people can adjust to a lower-sodium diet in just a few weeks. But for others it often takes months. Eventually foods that we used to enjoy can begin to taste too salty!
Q: So what’s the best way to choose low-sodium processed foods?
A: Check the nutrition facts panel on processed foods. Look for the percent daily value. Foods that are listed as 5 percent or less sodium are low in sodium, 6 percent-20 percent are moderate and those above 20 percent are high. When choosing processed foods, select low-sodium choices if possible, and flavor with spices or other low-sodium foods. A challenge can come when eating in a restaurant. However, times are changing and by voicing your preference for lower-sodium foods when you eat out, you may begin to see healthier foods on the menus in your favorite restaurants. Small changes over time can reap real health benefits.
— Susan Krumm is an Extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. She can be reached at 843-7058.