My husband pointed out this article to me, probably because he knows it will trigger a rant. I fall for it every time. The links are at the end of this post so you can read the debate for yourself. Hopefully it won't raise your blood pressure or leave you craving a salty snack for comfort. Not that it did that to me, I'm just saying...
Is salt inherently bad?
Let me think about salt for a minute. It contains mainly sodium chloride and is an essential mineral to life. It is a common preservative and has many other practical uses, such as being an ingredient in my favorite skin exfoliator. It was necessary to mix with ice for our homemade ice cream machine when I was a kid. We put it on the pavement if we have an ice storm. It hurts when I get it in a paper cut. It is what I am craving when I eat chips at my favorite Mexican restaurant. It looks pretty in my antique salt shaker. Okay, except for the paper cut part, salt can't be inherently bad.
The key is in the word inherently. No, salt in and of itself is not bad.
So What's the Problem?
Well apparently, as with many other things, Americans are taking in too much sodium. I know, I was shocked too. The article states the recommended maximum intake of sodium is 2,300 milligrams (mg) daily, and Americans are consuming an average of 3,400 mg daily. It also reminds us of the concerns of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, kidney problems and associated medical costs. That doesn't seem to be anything new to me, and the distressing part is that we've known all this for a while, but we're still consuming too much sodium, so we're obviously not motivated to change our habits to prevent disease or save money.
More interesting for fueling the debate is the fact that the article pointed out salt use in the food industry is contributing to the obesity crisis. Apparently salt used in specific combinations triggers cravings for not only more of that particular food, but for common, associated beverages. But it seems it's not so much about the salt shaker as it is about processed foods.
The problem is with intake of products with excessive, unnecessary sodium.
Let's say we want to be conscious about how much sodium we're taking in.
To do so, we MUST read labels. Here are a few examples:
- Can of green beans (generic): 390 mg of sodium in 1/2 cup
- 10.5 oz can of popular brand of soup: 480 mg of sodium in one serving
Not compelling? Do we think the average person eats 1/2 cup of plain, unsalted green beans? How about the fact that there are 2.5 servings in that one 10.5 oz can of soup? So if you ate the whole can, you'd have eaten 1200 mg of sodium and that's assuming you didn't eat any crackers with it, or a salad with dressing on it (more sodium). (You're thinking sure, I know canned stuff has more sodium in it). How about this?
- 1/2 cup of lowfat cottage cheese has 450 mg of sodium
- 1 tbsp of ketchup has 190 mg of sodium
Think about all the ingredients that just went in to what was cooked for dinner last night. Oh, but that's assuming we are cooking! See more ranting below.
More obvious labeling? What is the world coming to?
Part of the uproar is that the FDA is working on requiring nutritional labeling on the front of the package, so it's harder to ignore the label, and perhaps it might draw attention to the label for folks who really do want to know and make more informed decisions. To that I say, let's do it! But then I guess there wouldn't be room for pretty colors, fancy logos and cartoon characters and words like enriched, fat-free, low-fat, no sugar added, sugar-free, low carb, whole wheat, more fiber, etc.
The frenzy starts with the recommendation that the FDA set legal limits for sodium content in foods. To that I say, please don't! I've never seen a situation in any area of life in which a rigid, one-way, blanket approach solved a complex, multi-faceted problem. If we only legally require less sodium in foods, we will still have a problem of twisted labeling and people making bad eating choices. How about an informed, educated and supported consumer who doesn't consume the products that have an outrageous, unnecessary amount of sodium in them?
Now, some random examples from eating out at common places:
- 1/4 pound hamburger, fast food: 1,152 mg sodium
- 6 inch turkey sub on white: 1,010 mg sodium
- bowl of New England clam chowder: 1,110 mg sodium
- chicken alfredo entree: 2,030 mg sodium
- 1 extra crispy chicken breast: 1,286 mg sodium
- 1 bare chicken burrito: 2,330 mg sodium
Opposing View: What Makes Sense
Besides stating that a policy that treats everyone the same is discriminatory because we all react differently, other good points are that hyponatremia is real and serious, and that there is more literature out there than is being considered. I think it's safe to say we would always be served better if a fully balanced diet is promoted, rather than focusing in on a silver bullet approach, no matter what the element.
Opposing View: What I Don't Quite Get
There was concern that we'd be put on a clinical trial unknowingly/unwillingly if sodium was reduced in foods. Maybe we should be questioning the clinical trial we've been on all these years that we've been sodium-loading without common knowledge. And perhaps instead of proposing we spend money on huge clinical trials that show what happens to people when they don't consume so much salt, we could put that money into educating the public on balanced diets and how to make smart choices.
I also must point out that world-wide statistics might show that women take in less sodium than men, but I can tell you that I've personally seen, in America, women that could eat more sodium than men and win hands down. I cannot believe a reduction of all the excess sodium will throw any people that eat sodium-packed processed food, into danger of hyponatremia, regardless of gender.
I'd like to see the studies that show that babies born to women on low-salt diets are low-weight and have lifelong increased salt appetites, and that congestive heart failure patients placed on low-salt diets die or are readmitted more often than those who aren't. I have a lot of questions, such as how large the studies were, where were they conducted, what were the conditions surrounding the subjects, how old were they, were the pregnancies healthy otherwise, how long did we track the life-long salt cravings of the babies, what other co-morbid conditions did the heart patients have, how were the patients monitored, how was food consumption tracked or reported? Things like that.
I'm trying to leave the last paragraph of the opposing view alone, but I just can't. I really need a definition of "Italians". Are we talking about American Italians, or Italian Italians? My daughter married into a lovely Italian family, and I've not seen or heard about any salt extravaganzas. How can a diet of adequate fruits and vegetables also include a larger sodium intake than the American diet?
Lastly, we don't spend enough time promoting the benefits of vegetables (true) and that's THE reason consumption has dropped? How about the fact that we can't buy a head of broccoli for the price of a fast food cheeseburger?
I believe the opposing view gets it right when saying "consumers deserve better treatment", but I don't think the thoughts behind that statement are the same as mine.
What are your thoughts?