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No Salt for YOU!

I really, really love olives. And I confess that when a jar is placed in front of me, my hand goes on autopilot to my mouth without ever stopping to ask my brain what I think about how much salt there is in them. Fortunately, I don’t eat olives every single day, which, depending on who you talk to, is a pretty good thing. On average, Americans consume more than 4000 mg, or 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt a day. That’s nearly double the US RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of 2400 mg. In the UK the recommended amount of sodium is only 1600mg – which is roughly what doctors recommend you should keep as your upper limit if you have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular disease.

But aside from this guideline (which apparently we all completely disregard), there’s no regulations limiting salt in food. But a few weeks ago the nutritional community was abuzz when it was rumored that the FDA was considering imposing restrictions on the amount of salt in processed foods.

Whoa. Restrictions on salt? Could it be the new trans fat? I mean, sugar is not that good for you either, but I think the government knows better than to try to stand between you and your apple pie ala mode. I mean, how unpatriotic would that be? But apparently those salty pretzels you down with your beer in the bar while watching the Cavs game are another story.

This rumor originated with a story in the Washington Post, but as this article in the Atlantic explains, the FDA issued a press release that same afternoon denying the whole thing. Apparently, all the trouble started with areport by the Institute of Medicine (IOM): “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States,”which basically says that companies have not voluntarily reduced the salt in their products as much as they think they should, and consequently it’s time for big brother to step in and give them a hand.

So why is salt bad for you again? The basic premise is this: water follows salt. What that means is that when lots of salt is floating around in your bloodstream, it pulls in water. Now, imagine your arteries are like a garden hose. Adding more water to the hose increases the pressure inside – voila you’ve got high blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder and increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. There are also some additional studies that suggest high salt intake may be linked to osteoporosis – because the salt competes with calcium. So at the very least, if you consume a high salt meal with a calcium supplement, you may well be throwing away your money.

The trouble is that the evidence that salt is bad for you – is, frankly, a little bit contentious. According to a spokesperson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest in this CBS news report salt is “the single most harmful chemical in our food supply.” A medical expert in the same report says that salt can damage the heart, the brain, and the kidneys, and the reporter asserts that 150,000 lives could be saved if we cut back our salt intake by a teaspoon.

On the other hand, I’ve had a few conversations with doctors who tell me that the kidneys are pretty darn efficient at regulating sodium, and that in people who don’t have kidney disease, high blood pressure, or who have a demonstrated that their blood pressure is sensitive to salt – there’s no real reason to go around taking drastic measures to cut it out of your diet. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much scientific evidence at all that a low-salt diet is beneficial to people who don’t have cardiovascular disease.

Now, generally, I would say, “Come on! Can’t we all just be in charge of what we eat? You know, personal responsibility and all that?” But then I read a few labels. Packaged foods, like soups, crackers and frozen dinners have anywhere from 500 to 1600 mg of salt per serving. I don’t even know how that’s edible really, and it does make me wonder if including so much salt is making it unnecessarily hard for those to cut back who need to. After all, the government is not going to confiscate your salt shaker. You can still add as much salt to your food as you like if in the end it doesn’t suit your taste – and heck – you might even have to burn calories with all that extra arm motion shaking it on there. So really, the government is doing you a big favor, no?

And besides, all we really need is about 500 mg of salt a day. Most of us are getting something like 10 times that. I would call that overkill. Big time. Furthermore, it’s also been suggested that salt – like sugar and fat – is addictive. Now while I can’t speak to its addictive qualities from personal experience (olives notwithstanding), I can give testament to the fact that my own tastes have-over the last several weeks- acclimated to lower amounts of sugar and salt. If you don’t believe me, try cutting back – or cutting out – most added sugar or salt for two weeks. I’m willing to bet you’ll notice things naturally taste saltier, and sweeter. Today I was having a little snack of raw green beans and carrots, and I couldn’t believe how sweet the carrots tasted. I never would have said raw carrots tasted sweet 6 weeks ago. My perception of sugary, salty, and fatty foods had been desensitized by the overload it was getting – and I’m convinced now that an affinity for salty and sugary things is not only something I learned, but something I have unlearned by changing my eating habits. Don’t get me wrong – I still want olives and an occasional dish of ice cream – but I’m satisfied with much less. I know, I know. I wouldn’t have believed it either, but it’s true.

Now for all you salt lovers out there who are imagining a bland and tasteless world under government regulations, I would like to give you something to chew on before you run right out and eat as much salt as you can just to spite the FDA. First is that the problem is not really what you sprinkle on your food, but what comes in a package – and all those salty-pre-packaged or fast foods are usually plenty bad for you in other ways (calories and fat). Giving them up, may be the easiest way to cut out the salt in your diet without giving it up in places that really matter (like pickles and olives!) Second, if you are anything like me, salty foods taste best when washed down with coke, beer, or a sweetened beverage --- and if weight loss is a goal, you’re just making things harder on yourself by eating too much salt. Not to mention the fact that salt just makes you thirsty, and I can’t tell you how many times I have mistaken thirst for hunger, and grabbed a snack instead of a glass of water. Third, if salt inhibits calcium absorption, then you’re probably not only increasing your chances of osteoporosis, but by my way of thinking, you’re possibly making it harder to lose weight. There’s some good scientific evidence that high levels of calcium are linked to weight loss, because they increase fat break-down in cells. When calcium levels are low fat stays around longer, and I doubt anybody wants that. (Disclaimer: the author's association between salt, calcium and weight loss has not been evaluated by the FDA, or any other expert)

Curiously, China (mmm. salty Chinese food) and the United States produce more salt than any other country in the world. The U.S. was the leading salt producer for the last several decades (roughly 45 million metric tons annually), until it was recently surpassed by China in 2006. I find this little fact, and our recent change in attitude about salt, a rather curious twist in salt’s history. Salt was arguably one of the most important socio-political and economic forces in history. Salt was crucial in preserving food so that people could carry it with them and travel long distances without being dependent on seasonal availability of fresh foods. Cities and roads were built for the sole purpose of transporting salt. Entire civilizations were built around the salt trade, and even today, it’s significance remains embedded in our language. A character in a book I am currently reading by Indian author Thrity Umrigar, describes her employer as the woman who “buys her salt.” Which isn’t all that surprising given the role that salt played in the lives of Indian people. One of Ghandi’s most famous protests was a march to the sea to gather salt, openly defying the British salt monopoly (which did not allow Indian people to produce their own salt) and mobilizing many new followers toward independence from colonial rule. Salt is to India what tea is to America. Eventhe word salary is derived from to the Latin word salarium, meaning money that Roman soldiers were paid so they could buy salt.

Today of course, my modest salary could buy me more salt than I would know what to do with – and probably more than enough to send even my low blood pressure through the roof several times. Salt may have once, in the absence of refrigerators, been a symbol of wealth and independence – but today it’s probably best to turn your back on all those salty temptations, lest you end up a pillar of one. But as for the FDA, they're taking the IOM report with a grain or two of ... well you know.