The Great Salt Debate
M. Satin. The Salt Institute, Alexandria, VA. Cereal Foods World 53(1):9-16.
Aside from water, salt is the most ubiquitous food ingredient consumed by humankind. With the exception of a few societies, such as the primitive hunter-gathering Yanomamo Indians of Brazil, everyone consumes foods to which salt has been added. Salt is a nutrient that is essential to life and good health. Having originally evolved from a marine environment, the human body's salt/water ratio is critical to metabolism. Human blood contains 0.9% salt (sodium chloride) in order to maintain the electrolyte balance within and outside of cells. In the normal course of metabolism, we routinely eliminate sodium along with most other waste materials and the minimum balance must be replenished if we are to survive. Most of our salt intake comes from foods and some from water. Of course, any activity resulting in excessive loss of sodium, such as exercise, has to be counterbalanced by increased salt consumption to make up for this additional loss. If we do not replenish the sodium, our bodies are biologically programmed to go into a sodium-saving mode so that we can maintain sufficient blood pressure. This has multiple significant health consequences for us. Our understanding of sodium is further complicated by the overall role of salt (sodium chloride) in the diet. While sodium is an essential nutrient, sodium chloride (the main source of sodium in the diet) is our most common and applied flavor enhancer. In particular, it makes many of our foods which carry other essential nutrients more palatable. The use of salt to make foods more palatable is a millennia-old phenomenon and not the result of commercial promotion, nor does it result from low cost and availability. The high esteem for salt as a flavoring ingredient was evident even during periods when it was a rare and costly commodity. Thus, sodium should not only be evaluated on the basis of its specific metabolic function and requirements, but also upon its influence on delivering other essential nutrients to the diet. This article looks at the use of salt as well as some of the recent salt reduction initiatives, the main players in this movement, and the research that has been promoted by the antisalt advocates.