Salt's Faults

Salt and sugar, my two favorite white crystals, are completely legal, not to mention cheap. But they're also evil twins moving up the list of lifestyle habits with a bad rep. Nutritionists and public-health educators and officials are suggesting maximum consumption limits for both that are terrifying slim - a spoonful of sugar and a teaspoon of salt per day. Sugar, we know, makes us fat, and fat is bad. But salt is sneakier. Salt quietly plumps up your blood pressure, and high blood pressure means that your heart has to work overtime, inviting heart attacks, strokes, and other bad things. We now consume more than twice the amount of salt we consumed in previous decades - and we don't even notice the increase.

Few of us add a teaspoon of salt to our food: salt added at the table amounts to only six percent of the salt we consume. Seventy-seven percent of our salt intake comes from processed food and restaurant meals, which means that salt is a silent hitchhiker in almost anything we eat that isn't made from scratch. One little can of tomato juice, for example, has half the sodium (750 milligrams) of the 1500-milligram daily allowance that experts recommend for many people. Of course, your body can't function without some amount of salt in your diet, and 12 percent of the salt we consume is a natural component of fresh food. But getting to the recommended salt levels would require cutting sodium in most processed foods (like canned soup) by 80 percent. The British government has set a national goal of reducing salt in processed and restaurant foods by one third. Mayor Bloomberg and his public-health officers are hotly pursuing a similar voluntary salt-reduction program on this side of the pond. But change won't be easy. The problem is that salt makes things taste good. After years of a salt binge, the low-sodium alternatives taste flat - like hospital food.

Reducing salt levels to about a teaspoon a day would save an estimated 150,000 American lives a year by controlling high blood pressure, a significant problem for about one in three adults in the United States. Those over 40 are especially at risk, but does sodium intake matter for anyone younger? I posed the question to Kathy McManus, M.S., R.D., the director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "You don't want to wait 30 years to care about salt," she says. "Detuning the palate for salt takes time. As the big food manufacturers start to decrease the salt in processed food, the palate will adjust. But don't wait for them to get smart about salt." McManus, not a salt Nazi, understands the lure of salt. "Educate yourself about the salt content of the foods and beverages you eat regularly. Plan for it. If you are eating lunch out at a chain, be careful about the sodium in your other meals." In short, learn to read the tiny numbers on the handouts at Subway and Burger King.

Do chefs worry about how much salt is in your dinner at a Boston bistro? Not really, says Gabriel Bremer of Salts in Cambridge. "As a country, we have to start paying attention to our eating habits. But as a chef with a small 40-seat restaurant, I don't have to worry about salt. I only worry about taste. We use only fresh, raw ingredients. All the salt in our food is in our control. We don't even use canned tomatoes."

Can I get by on a spoonful of sugar? A teaspoon of salt? I'm not so sure. When trans fats became public nutrition enemy number one, we hardly noticed the changes. But who had trans fats in a shaker or on the table in a cute little bowl?

- Louisa Kasdon
Louisa Kasdon can be reached at louisa@louisakasdon.com.