by Louisa Kasdon
| January 11, 2010
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
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