Nutrition

Please, Slash the Salt

If you have stopped saying “please, pass the salt”, you probably know that too much sodium in the diet can contribute to heart disease risk factors, especially high blood pressure.

But the problem is not primarily in those shakers on the dining room table, kitchen counter or your favorite restaurant. The biggest problem, say physicians, dietitians and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is with processed foods commonly available at your local grocery.

Food companies and restaurants will soon face government pressure to prepare foods with less salt as the FDA is preparing guidelines to help prevent thousands of deaths each year from heart disease and stroke.

The FDA will soon issue voluntary guidelines asking the food industry to lower sodium levels. Salt contains 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. That means each teaspoon of salt provides 2,000 milligrams of sodium.

Salt’s Function in Body, Food
Salt helps maintain the body’s balance of fluids. But salt also helps prevent spoilage and keeps some foods safe to eat. Its role as a preservative is partially why salt is so prevalent.

Americans consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. The sodium mostly comes from salt, 75 percent of which is found in prepared, processed or restaurant food. Studies have linked too much sodium to high blood pressure and a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney problems.

Recommended: 2,300 Milligrams Daily
The latest dietary guidelines recommend that most adults consume about 2,300 milligrams daily — which is about a teaspoon. However, that’s hard to measure when salt comes from packaged food or a meal prepared by someone else. Food labels, though, contain sodium levels to help consumers. However, the portion of these labels devoted to sodium is often ignored, doctors and dietitians say.

“Anything that comes in a can, jar or box can be loaded with salt, even if it doesn’t taste salty,” said Yeisel Barquin, M.D., an internist and family physician with the Baptist Health Medical Group. “Most people know they need low-sodium diets, but they just think about the salt you add to food at the dinner table.”

The most prevalent sources of salt are processed foods, including frozen or prepared meals, deli meats. Other sources can be prepared sauces, dressing and condiments, Dr. Barquin said.

“Some people are more sensitive than others to high sodium levels, include the elderly,” said Dr. Barquin. “For example, African Americans are more sensitive to salt, and patients that are obese, the elderly, and those with chronic kidney disease.”

Sea Salt vs. Table Salt
Adding to the confusion on sodium levels and the prevalence of sodium in prepared foods is the relatively new craze known as “sea salt”, promoted by food companies that make chips and other snacks.

But sea salt contains about the same amount of sodium as the more common salt. The natural form of “sea salt” may give consumers the wrong impression that it doesn’t count in low-sodium diets.

Sea salt is derived directly by evaporating seawater. It is usually not processed, or goes through minimal processing. That means it holds trace levels of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and other nutrients.

Table salt, however, is mined from salt deposits and then processed for easier use when cooking or adding to foods. Processing strips table salt of any minerals it may have contained. Moreover, additives are also usually to prevent clumping or caking.

“Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, you can help prevent it by eating a low sodium diet,” said Dr. Barquin. “If you have hypertension, a low-sodium diet will help your blood pressure medicine work better.”

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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 13 hospitals, more than 23,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 100 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.