Is it Time to Shake Our Salt Addiction?

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

While it is easy enough today to head down to the grocery store and pick up a container of salt, in earlier times, salt wasn´t so readily available or even affordable. One of the oldest natural preservatives and seasonings, salt has long been essential to life. And in parts of the world where salt was hard to obtain, it was sometimes traded ounce for ounce with gold.

This resulted in a salt trade from North Africa to West Africa where caravans would carry the white mineral across the Sahara to trading centers like Djenne and Timbuktu. In the Roman Empire soldiers were paid in salt, which is where the term “worth one´s salt” came from as well as the word “salary.”

Today salt isn´t so hard to come by. In fact, it can be quite difficult not to ingest more than the amount recommended by health professionals. Not only can salt be readily purchased at the grocery store, it is already in much of the prepared and packaged food on our tables. According to the FDA, more than 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from eating packaged and restaurant foods. A recent study even suggested that children are getting too much salt from pre-packaged food.

A new balanced review published in the March 27 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine, cited correlations between blood pressure and salt intake in a number of different studies.

Dr. Theodore A. Kotchen, M.D., professor of medicine and associate dean for clinical research at the Medical College of Wisconsin, was the lead author of the article. He is also the author or co-author of more than 200 peer-reviewed publications dealing with mechanisms of blood pressure control, hypertension treatment strategies and genes associated with hypertension.

Kotchen has noted a possible causation between lowering salt intake and decreased blood pressure, which occurs in individuals who have been diagnosed with hypertension. And while not as pronounced, Kotchen has also noted a link between salt intake and blood pressure in non-hypertensive individuals as well.

Recent studies have also indicated a possible connection between reduced salt intake leading to decreased cardiovascular disease and decreased mortality.

“Salt is essential for life, but it has been difficult to distinguish salt need from salt preference,” said Dr. Kotchen in a statement. “Given the medical evidence, it seems that recommendations for reducing levels of salt consumption in the general population would be justifiable at this time.”

There have been efforts to get people to shake the salt habit. Recent national studies in Great Britain and Finland have resulted in national salt-reduction programs. Back in the United States, New York City has also toyed with the idea of a salt ban for some years, going so far as to ban donations to homeless shelters because the city can´t assess the amount of salt, fat or fiber content.

However, while salt could be a cause for health concerns, Kotchen admits there´s no one-size-fits-all recommendation. He notes that a lower limit for salt consumption has not been clearly identified and maintains that in certain patients groups less rigorous targets for salt reduction could be appropriate.

There is also the fact that salt could have benefits that outweigh possible health risks.

Salt could help those who don´t have access to clean water, as NPR reported recently that “Sun, salt and lime sounds like the beginnings of a cocktail recipe, but for some, it could mean cleaner, life-sustaining water.” The salty water may not be especially healthy or even taste good, but Joshua Pierce, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Tech, noted that it is an effective way to reduce pathogens in contaminated water.

Just as salt is crucial to life, so is water, and the salt added to purify the water is actually less than the amount found in Gatorade — proving that in our modern world salt is indeed everywhere.

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