I guess you really CAN have too much of a good thing. Salt has long been adored by culinarians for its transformative powers over virtually ANY food. And that’s precisely the problem. Over time, we’ve added more and more salt to more and more foods and now we bear significant public health risk as a result.
Excess salt intake most notably leads to high blood pressure, which can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. Consuming too much salt can also cause water retention or bloating, which are certainly not as dangerous but can be vexing to those trying to maintain their weight or waistline!
I read this NY Times article over the weekend and was blown away by a lot of what I learned. Just a few highlights:
– Processed food accounts for nearly 80% of the salt in the American Diet
– Salt in those foods works with added fat and sugar to achieve flavors that are literally addictive for consumers – consider the old “Betcha Can’t Eat Just One” campaign – this is why!
– Nutrient labels overstate the recommended daily allowance for sodium at 2300mg. Most consumers (children, older adults, people with hypertension) actually should max out around 1500 mg. This makes food labels too lenient for most consumers.
– A 1 c. serving of Cheez-Its delivers 1/3 of the (highest) recommended daily sodium for an adult – salt is added to the dough, the cheese AND sprinkled on top of the baked cracker!
– 3 slices of Oscar Meyer ham has 1/2 of the recommended daily sodium for an adult
– A can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup packs the ENTIRE daily sodium intake into just 150 calories!
One of the saddest things is that food manufacturers feel they have little consumer-driven incentive to reduce the amount of salt in their products because there is no weight-loss or appearance benefit for consumers from salt reduction. This differs from the widespread consumer demand to reduce sugar in products, which led to an onslaught of items sweetened with artificial sweeteners. Since salt reduction presents “only” a health benefit, consumers appear far less motivated to demand change.
And, the truth is, reducing the salt in these products DOES negatively impact the taste. Manufacturers fear that consumers will vote with their wallets and simply stop buying lower-sodium versions of their favorite foods if they no longer taste as good!
So what’s a person to do? It seems that since 80% of our salt intake is coming from processed foods, one logical step is to reduce the number of processed foods we eat! I advocate this approach for lots of reasons, so just add this one to the list. Restaurants are also notorious for over-salting foods, so the more we can cook at home, the better off we probably are when it comes to sodium intake.
Cooking food from fresh ingredients allows us to control the amount of salt we add to just what we need to enhance flavor. This should result in a far lower salt intake overall than if we were eating a diet rich in processed foods. And to top it off, fresh foods often NEED less seasoning because their natural flavors are so amazing.
So, while I’m not throwing out the jar of kosher salt I use for cooking anytime soon, I am committing to being even more cognizant of the sodium content in any processed foods I may buy. Like Cheez-Its. Sheesh.