“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” ~ Nelson Mandela
Taste is one of our five traditional senses along with sight, hearing, smell and touch. Taste is the sensation created when foods we eat or drink react chemically with our taste bud receptors. The five basic tastes have long been categorized as sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami or savory. Salt is the most common and readily available nonmetallic mineral in the world. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 55 trillion metric tons of salt reserves, enough to sustain our needs for 100,000 years. Today, just as in ancient times, salt is produced by the evaporation of sea water and by mining.
Historically, salt has been seen as an extremely valuable commodity and has been influential in human existence for thousands of years. Archeologists have discovered Neolithic settlements near salt springs dating from 6050 BC. Salt roads and trade routes were established as early as the bronze age. Salt has even played a role in determining the power and location of ancient cities. Cities and towns along salt routes were paid taxes and duties as salt caravans passed through their territories. Salt was used as a currency in ancient Rome and was such a valuable commodity that many ancient battles were fought over the control of salt sources. Prior to industrialization, salt was necessary for food preservation as well as seasoning. Salt’s ability to preserve food became a foundation of civilization. In the modern era, it became more profitable to sell salted, preserved food than pure salt.
As salt has been an intrinsic part of our diets since the relative beginning of human existence, it comes as no surprise that humans possess an inherent appetite for salt. Salt is an essential nutrient that the body cannot make but requires for good health and normal cellular metabolism. Salt helps to manage our fluid balance, particularly in regard to cardiovascular health, maintains blood pressure and transmits information in our nerves and muscles. Salt is also vital to the digestion of food and destruction of food-borne pathogens in the stomach.
Refined salt, the most widely used form, is composed mainly of sodium and chloride ions. Most table salt contains additives such as iodine and anti-caking agents. One teaspoon of salt contains approximately 2,300 mg of sodium. There has been much debate regarding the level of dietary salt needed to maintain optimal health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, most Americans consume 3,400 mg of salt daily. High sodium consumption is a risk factor for high blood pressure which in turn increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. The Institute of Medicine recommends 1,500 mg of sodium per day with the tolerable upper limit of 2,300 mg per day, and advises that potassium-rich fruits and vegetables be increased in the diet. The vast majority of salt consumed is from processed and restaurant foods, not from the food prepared at home or added at the table.
Eating less sodium can be challenging. The top sources of sodium in the diet include breads, cured meats, pizza, poultry, soups, cheese, pasta dishes, salad dressings, and salty snacks. About 65% of sodium in our diets comes from foods purchased at grocery stores. An additional 25% comes from restaurant meals.
What can be done to reduce sodium in the diet? Small daily reductions can help reduce overall consumption.
- Different brands of the same foods may have different sodium levels so it pays to read nutrition labels and compare. Look for foods with less than 300 mg of sodium per serving. A good rule of thumb for label reading is to look for no more than 1 mg of sodium per calorie.
- Many high sodium foods don’t list salt on the label. Look for other forms of sodium used in processing such as monosodium glutamate, sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium phosphate, and sodium alginate.
- Avoid processed foods high in sodium and eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen fruits and vegetables without sauce.
- Request lower sodium options when dining out.
- As much as possible cook from scratch and reduce the amount of sodium in the recipe. Add fresh and dried herbs, spices, and roots such as garlic and ginger for flavoring.
- When dining out, request salad dressing on the side or stick with oil and vinegar.
- Select low-sodium options on canned or prepared foods and rinse canned vegetables before cooking.
- Snack on fresh fruits and vegetables as opposed to pretzels, chips and crackers.
- Downsize your portions to reduce sodium intake and manage weight.
- Healthy fats such as olive oil or roasted nuts can enhance flavor without adding additional sodium.
- The fifth taste or umami includes foods that are naturally high in l-glutamate which can trigger our taste receptors. Mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, Chinese cabbage and seaweed are good choices.
- Allot your sodium budget to enhance flavors of produce, whole grains, nuts and legumes instead of overspending on salty snacks, heavily processed foods and high-sodium fast foods.
- Always taste before reaching for the salt shaker. When cooking, add salt late in the cooking process as adding salt too early can often result in over-salting.