Myth: We need to eat salt
Fact: We add salt to foods because we like, not because we need it
I heard a food critic talking about salt (the main source of sodium in our diet) on the radio recently. He very much supported chefs adding salt to cooking because he said food had no flavour without it. He also said adding salt was good for us because the body needs it. He was half right on the first point but dead wrong on the second.
Our physiological need for sodium is actually very low. The average Adequate Intake for an adult is between 460–920mg sodium per day (equivalent to 1–2g salt). This is easily provided by the natural sodium content in whole foods such as meat, dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds and nuts. For example, a chicken drumstick, a cup of milk, a cup of mixed vegetables, a small banana, a cup of cooked rice, or 1/3 cup of mixed nuts all contain 100mg each.
Eating too much salt raises blood pressure and this is a risk factor for heart disease. It’s particularly bad news for people with diabetes because it also increases the risk of other complications as well, such as stroke, kidney damage and eye disease. Here in Australia for example, AWASH (Australians for World Action on Salt and Health) says we eat on average 9g of salt a day when the Suggested Dietary Target is 4g. Reducing our salt intake by 25–35% could lead to a 20% or greater reduction in risk of heart attacks and stroke.
So how did we get to a situation where eating too much salt became common place, and a pizza contains twice your daily recommended amount? Let’s start with the tongue. Human taste buds have receptors for sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (a savoury flavour) and possibly fat according to a recent study. The salt taste helped early man find mineral rich foods for survival in the same way sweetness helped to find foods high in sugars for energy. Of course the taste for salt was very sensitive to the low concentrations in wild, unprocessed foods. As we switched from hunter-gatherers to agricultural communities, we needed a way to preserve foods and salt was an excellent way to ensure food was available all year round. It was then our taste for salt began.
Then the industrial and technological revolutions radically changed the way we buy, store, cook and buy food. Nowadays we have sophisticated packaging, refrigeration, canning and freezing. From a preservation point of view, salt is redundant. While salt still fulfils some technical functions in food processing, by far the over-riding reason it is in our foods in large amounts is because we like the taste. We have grown accustomed to over-salted foods so much that we crave it and miss it when it’s gone. This of course creates a dilemma for restaurants and food manufacturers who want to use less salt – people complain there is less flavour.
So how do we cut back on salt as a community? There needs to be both a push from consumers for less salty foods and a pull from the food industry to use less. One won’t work without the other. We all have to wean ourselves off our lust for salt by cutting down gradually to give our abused taste buds a chance to recover and rediscover the taste of real and natural flavours again. Checking food labels to find lower sodium options will help, but so will switching to more fresh unprocessed foods and holding back on salt in cooking. It’s simple really, eat less salt and live a longer and healthier life.
For more straight talking nutrition advice and lower-salt recipes to look after your heart, go to www.eattobeatcholesterol.com.au