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Armor Up, America – We’re in the Salt Battle of Our Lives

Recently, news concerning the nation’s salt intake brought some tough love to American consumers. Tough enough to prompt the author of the study, which was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to be quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “This is not good news”. True enough. It is in fact alarming news, proving that when it comes to salt, the term “silent killer” is no misnomer.

Adults, the study indicates, should eat less than one teaspoon of salt each day, while 70% of the population should eat less than 2/3 of a teaspoon. But in fact, only 1 in 18 people meet this goal. With heart disease and hypertension numbers on the climb, it looks like a true battle royale, with NaCl donning the armor.

It’s Not the Salt Shaker

This insidious mineral stepping into the gladiator arena is sodium chloride. Used traditionally for food preservation, it is something necessary for human life in small quantities and harmful – even deadly – in excess. It is a major player in the fight against high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.

Decades ago, putting down the salt shaker may have been solid advice for maintaining good health. But today, minding the shaker is old school. If you are a human being consuming food in 2010, you know your salt issues originate elsewhere:

  • Processed food: tomato sauce, soups, condiments, canned food, prepared mixes…
  • Restaurant foods
  • Cold cuts / meats
  • Baked goods
  • Grain-based products

In addition, some medications include sodium, and we can even be taking in a significant amount sodium from natural sources, such as well water. In fact, the Mayo Clinic determines that a mere 6% of salt originates from the shaker while 77% of salt intake comes from processed food. The rest comes from salt added while cooking and natural sources.

We could shake all day long and never reach the amount we get from processed of prepared food.

Salt is Part of the Golden Trinity

We have talked about David Kessler here in previous posts, and the recent salt news has catapulted him into the mainstream. Currently, more of the public is hearing about his mission to understand and expose the golden trinity of taste for what he feels it is: a concoction created by food companies to seduce the brain chemistry into making us eat and crave more. The recipe? Fat, sugar and salt that bathes food in startling amounts, in the most appealing and scientifically proven combination. Arguably, it’s the NaCl gladiator’s most powerful weapon.

It’s really no wonder that 1 in 3 U.S. adults has high blood pressure, and the government estimates that 9 in 10 will develop it in their lifetime. We at risk, according to this study, are often eating twice their daily requirement of sodium.

Salt Reform

FDA’s anti-salt initiative begins later this year and would eventually lead to legal limits on the amount of sodium allowed in food. Its plan would be phased in over ten years and would not be voluntary. Restaurants are targets as well, and while some have said they will voluntarily reduce salt in items on the menu, they may also be required to visibly post amounts. Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg began a national campaign to cut salt levels, and food companies were recruited to comply. Starbucks and Heinz were one of 16 that agreed to cut salt levels in their products.

While regulation debates rage on, some eschew regulations and prefer to enter the gladiator ring for a one-on-one. For those, there’s one dagger of knowledge that can help us get medieval on salt starting now.

Sodium is an Acquired Taste

Your secret weapon is knowledge. We know, for instance, that salt is an acquired taste. It’s acquired by the processed and prepared foods we eat over our entire lifetime and the result is that low sodium foods taste bland.

But as we take steps to reduce sodium in our diets, our taste sensitivities will adapt. We will appreciate foods for their true flavor. The process of adapting takes about 8-12 weeks – that’s the amount of time it takes for a shift in taste preference to occur in most people.

Give yourself 8-12 weeks.

The American Heart Association offers these tips to get you started.

  • Choose fresh, frozen or canned food items without added salts.
  • Select unsalted nuts or seeds, dried beans, peas and lentils.
  • Limit salty snacks like chips and pretzels.
  • Avoid adding salt and canned vegetables to homemade dishes.
  • Select unsalted, lower sodium, fat-free broths, bouillons or soups.
  • Select fat-free or low-fat milk, low-sodium, low-fat cheeses and low-fat yogurt.
  • Learn to use spices and herbs to enhance the taste of your food.  Most spices naturally contain very small amounts of sodium.
  • Add fresh lemon juice instead of salt to fish and vegetables.
  • Specify how you want your food prepared when dining out. Ask for your dish to be prepared without salt.
  • Don’t use the salt shaker. Use the pepper shaker or mill.

Now that you are armed with tactics, remember that they must be combined with strategy. In the end, according to Kessler, we must change our relationship with food by understanding that hyperpalatable foods that use hyperportions of salt are not our friends. They should be understood as harmful and be duly replaced by healthier foods and their own positive associations – until we get to the point where the golden trinity of taste is no longer what we crave.

Best of luck, gladiators. Let the games begin.

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