An industry peppered with questions about salt

AMA action spurs debate about how much is too much

August 30, 2006|By Janet Helm | Janet Helm,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

We seem to have a distinct connection to salt. This humble seasoning, technically sodium chloride, so ubiquitous in our kitchens, has held a premier position in human society since prehistoric times.

From piping-hot french fries to the rim of a margarita glass, from expensive fleur de sel on a chef's signature rib dish to the shaker on our family dining table, salt is everywhere.

We connect to salt in a primal, elemental way. Not only would the flavor of many foods suffer without it, we would die without the sodium it contains.

But now the warnings to eat less salt are getting louder. Earlier this summer, the American Medical Association pushed the issue of salt onto center stage. The group called for salt to be stripped of its "generally recognized as safe" status and categorized as a food additive, allowing the Food and Drug Administration more power to limit salt in processed foods.

Salt is not a new health threat. For decades, doctors have been calling for Americans to cut back their intake. Yet our love of the crystalline substance grows unabated. Most of us consume twice the recommended daily amount of sodium - 2,300 milligrams, or about a teaspoon of salt - and our intake appears to be inching up.

"There's a romanticism about salt right now," said Bill Penzey, owner of the Penzeys Spices chain of stores, who recently introduced a new line of sea salts including a fleur de sel ("flower of the salt" in French) and a French gray salt.

But salt may be poised to be the next "trans fat." The AMA is calling for the food industry to slash sodium levels in half over the next decade, citing "overwhelming evidence" that excessive sodium intake is tied to hypertension, heart disease and stroke.

But why do Americans have a hard time giving up their favorite seasoning? Dr. Gary Beauchamp has been trying to find out for the last 20 years. He is director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit research institute that focuses on the science of taste and smell. His studies have explored factors that influence how much we like salt.

Beauchamp said we're likely born with a penchant for salt. Environment is also a factor; we learn to like a salty taste because that's what we're exposed to. But his studies have shown that you can retrain your palate. "If you are able to cut your intake of sodium in half, you will eventually find lower levels acceptable," he said. People often experience "taste shock" when they suddenly switch to a lower-sodium diet, but after several weeks they adjust.

The body needs some salt. Both the sodium and chloride in salt are essential nutrients classified as electrolytes (along with potassium and a few other nutrients). That means they actually conduct electricity in the body, transmitting signals to muscles and nerves.

In food processing, salt does more than provide the salty taste we seem to crave; it serves as a preservative, regulates fermentation and enhances color, texture and "mouth feel" in foods. It also helps counter bitter tastes.

There is some debate about how bad salt is for you. Dr. Michael Alderman, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and president of the International Society of Hypertension, is one of the most vocal critics against a dietary restriction of salt.

"Why in the world should everyone eat the same amount of salt?" said Alderman, who thinks the AMA's new call to action is a "reckless recommendation" and wants to see more research to demonstrate the health benefits of reducing sodium intake.

Alderman has conducted studies suggesting that low-sodium diets may increase the risk of heart attacks in some people, and contends that only "salt-sensitive" individuals should be concerned about sodium intake.

Yet the majority of scientists and health organizations believe that cutting back on salt is good whether you have high blood pressure or not. It may be particularly important for blacks, adults older than 50 and people who have high blood pressure. These individuals are advised to limit sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day.

Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, emeritus professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, believes Alderman's research is "flawed" and "scientifically inadequate."

"The problem cannot be solved easily at the individual level," he said. "We need the cooperation of the food industry. In the era of modern refrigeration, salt is an unnecessary food additive."

Janet Helm wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.

Taking in less

Hiding the shaker will barely make a dent because only a fraction of the salt we eat is added at the table. Most of the sodium in our diet comes from processed foods and restaurant meals. Here are ways to cut back:

Eat fewer processed foods that come in boxes or cans.

Buy fresh poultry, fish and lean meats instead of canned, cured, smoked or processed types.

Do not add salt during cooking. Instead, sprinkle on a few grains of coarse sea salt or kosher salt at the table as a "finishing" salt. You'll likely be satisfied with less.

Use primarily fresh vegetables or choose plain frozen more often than canned.

Rinse canned vegetables, beans and meats to remove some of the sodium added in processing.

Make your own salad dressing and marinades with vinegar, fresh-squeezed citrus juices, oil and herbs. Bottled versions are spiked with salt.

Make your own stock and gravy instead of using bouillon cubes or granules.

When eating out, order foods that have been grilled, baked, steamed or poached instead of fried, battered, smothered or gratineed. Visit the Web sites of fast-food and national chains to find the nutritional values of their dishes.

[ Janet Helm]

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