Thursday, May 20, 2010

Salt - the New Bad Guy

Seems like everyone’s talking about salt these days. The government’s got a bee in its bonnet and is on a mission to reduce salt in the American diet. Good luck with that. Our bodies require about 1500 mg of sodium a day. Most Americans get more than twice that. And too much salt can lead to high blood pressure which can cause stroke, heart attack, osteoporosis, and asthma, to name a few. Salt is the new bad guy, but really you can’t blame salt.

Salt brings out the flavor in foods. It makes food taste good. Ever leave the salt out of your chocolate chip cookie recipe? Yuck. Hard to believe sugar and flour and chocolate couldn’t be delicious, but without the salt it’s basically cardboard. And truly, there’s nothing wrong with salt. We all need it.

Sodium is essential for life. Without it our body can’t balance its water regulation. It’s also necessary for muscle contraction and expansion, nerve stimulation, acid-alkaline balance, and the proper function of the adrenal glands. Deficiency symptoms include confusion, low blood sugar, weakness, lethargy, and heart palpations. On the other hand, I read from a reputable source that a salt-free diet will often cure acne and oily skin. That might have been helpful when I was 16, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk.

I love salt. We use celtic sea salt granules in a grinder at our table and I’m pretty guilty of grinding away over my food. My husband always winces as he watches me douse my food with salt. I feel pretty healthy and my blood pressure is always excellent, so I try to avert my eyes when my hubby gives me that look that says “Stop using so much salt or you’re going to DIE.”

I’ve been following the big salt crisis, as I have a vested interest in not dying. Here’s what I discovered. The salt that is sickening us is not coming from our salt shakers. In fact, only 11% of our sodium intake actually comes from what we add to our food at the table. Where the sodium is really lurking is in processed food and restaurant foods. Chefs all over are panicking at the idea that the government might regulate how much salt they are allowed to add to their signature dishes. Most chefs add salt to their cooking by the fistful, not the teaspoon. Time’s recent article revealed that the Admiral’s Feast at Red Lobster has 4,400 mg of sodium. That’s three days worth! Country fried steak dinner at Denny’s has more than 3600 mg of sodium – the same as 24 strips of bacon.

Now, I’m certainly not holding up Red Lobster or Denny’s as the example of fine dining, but the parking lots of places like that are crammed, so somebody must like their cooking. We have a Cracker Barrel just a mile from our house and ever since it opened I’ve never driven by and not seen it stuffed. We ate there once, just to see what the fuss was all about. I couldn’t find anything on the menu that wasn’t smothered in gravy or deep fried. And the vegetables were boiled to death and drenched in too much salt for even my taste. Collectively we are encouraging this kind of restaurant to exist and expand, just like our waistlines.

The other place that the bulk of our sodium intake comes from is processed food, and I’m not just talking about lunchables (ham and swiss lunchables have 930mg of sodium!). Breakfast cereals and snack foods, the staple of any normal kids’ diet are loaded with sodium. Check out your bottle of ketchup - 150 mg in a tablespoon. I don’t know about your kids, but mine practically mainline the stuff. Ranch Dip has 290 mg of sodium in a 2 tablespoon serving. It all begins to add up. You can count on sodium in pretty much anything you buy from the store, it’s even found naturally in some foods, like meat, poultry, vegetables, and milk. One cup of low fat milk has about 107 mg sodium. Progresso Hearty Tomato Soup has 1,110 mg and here you thought you were being healthy having soup for lunch. In college we all ate through cases of Ramen Noodles because they were so cheap, but they are loaded with sodium – 1120 per serving!

Sodium chloride is everywhere. I was reading the ingredients in a bottle of hair conditioner the other day and found sodium chloride listed as the final ingredient – in hair care?! So what’s a person supposed to do? I think it’s fairly simple. Avoid processed food. Cook food yourself. Buy your food from people you know. I was explaining this to my 13-year-old and he said, “that’s your theme, I think.” So at least he’s getting the message even if he doesn’t always heed it.

If you do buy processed food, and let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to avoid, pay attention to labels. Salt is a great preservative, so food manufacturers use it heavily to protect food. They depend on it to reduce the dryness in crackers, and bring out the sweetness in cakes and cookies. And don’t overlook that salt is also found in sodium-containing compounds like monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, and sodium nitrate.

I admit that I can be heavy handed with the salt shaker on my own plate, but I can do that because most everything I cook comes from fresh ingredients and I add very little salt when cooking. In fact, I’m kind of famous for leaving it out. My poor family has endured all manner of salt-less concoctions. All this bad press about salt has me reading labels again and that’s a good thing. The key for most of us when it comes to eating healthy is awareness. Salt is not the bad guy – our eating habits are.

Note: See the post, “Salt is Salt is Salt…or is it?” from September 2009 to learn about the healthiest types of salt.

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