Everyone needs salt for fluid balance and muscle and nerve function. But too much salt is bad for us, we hear. So how much do we need?
The human body regulates how much sodium it contains. If levels are too high, we get thirsty and drink, and the kidneys speed up the process of getting rid of it.
Too little sodium can lead to hyponatremia, and symptoms of dizziness, confusion, muscle twitches and seizures.
Most Americans consume too much salt and sodium, due to a high intake of processed, restaurant, and convenience foods. How far should we go in cutting out salt?
What we know as salt is really sodium chloride. It is 40 percent sodium and the rest is chlorine.
Fast facts about salt
- The body needs salt, but too much or too little can cause problems.
- Sodium makes up 40 percent of salt. If a food label lists sodium instead of salt, multiply the answer by 2.5 for an accurate picture of the salt content.
- Most Americans take in too much salt, and 75 percent of it is hidden in processed and packaged food.
- The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend a maximum intake of no more than 2.3 grams (g) or 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, or around 1 teaspoon, and preferably no more than 1,500 mg.
The word salt comes from the Latin word “sal,” meaning salt. It was once a valuable commodity, and it has been used as a currency for trading. The English word “salary” comes from the word salt.
Salt has long been used for flavoring and for preserving food. It has also been used in tanning, dyeing and bleaching, and the production of pottery, soap, and chlorine. Today, it is widely used in the chemical industry.
It commonly features at the table or in the kitchen as free-flowing table salt, rock salt, sea salt, or kosher salt. High levels of salt, or sodium, come hidden in everyday foods, from fast food to frozen chicken.
The body uses sodium to maintain fluid levels. A balance of fluid and sodium is necessary for the health of the heart, liver, and kidneys. It regulates blood fluids and prevents low blood pressure.
Too little salt
Low sodium levels can result if there is too much fluid in the body, for example, because of fluid retention. Diuretics are given in this case, to reduce fluid retention.
Other causes of low sodium in the body include:
- Addison disease
- a blockage in the small intestine
- diarrhea and vomiting
- an underactive thyroid
- heart failure
- drinking too much water
If sodium levels fall in the blood, this affects brain activity. The person may feel sluggish and lethargic. They may experience muscle twitches, followed by seizures, a loss of consciousness, coma, and death. If sodium levels fall quickly, this may happen very fast.
In older people, symptoms can be severe.
Too much salt
The American Heart Association (AHA)
High blood pressure also contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, leading to a greater risk of stroke and heart disease, among other problems.
Salt and sodium occur naturally dissolved in seawater, or as a crystalline solid in rock salt.
The salt we eat today comes largely from the processed and convenience foods in our diet, but some natural and unprocessed foods also contain salt or sodium. It occurs naturally in meats, seafood, eggs, some vegetables, and dairy products.
The top six salty foods in the United States (U.S.), according to the AHA, are:
- breads and rolls
- cold cuts and cured meats
Sea salt, rock salt, and kosher salt all contain around
How much salt?
The average American currently eats more than
The AHA and the World Health Organization recommend not exceeding a daily sodium intake of 1,500 mg, or 1.5 g a day, or just over half a teaspoon of table salt.
People with high blood pressure, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases should be especially vigilant in keeping their intake below the 1,500 mg threshold.
What does 1,500 mg of sodium look like?
- one egg: up to 140 mg
- 230 g of fresh milk: around 50 mg
- 200 g of plain yogurt: 40 mg
- 200 g of natural, low-fat yogurt: 76 mg
- 50 g of raw celery: 140 mg
- 60 g cooked spinach: 120 mg
Other vegetables are low in sodium, but canned vegetables have added salt and a far higher sodium content.
Dietitians urge people not to add extra salt to their food because enough is already added, if it is processed or packaged.
Infants under one year should not be given salt because their kidneys are not matured.
It is difficult to measure how much salt we are consuming, as it is hidden in many foods. More than
It is important to check the nutritional information on processed food to find out which ones are high and low in salt, or sodium, content, and what is the difference between salt and sodium.
Salt is 40 percent sodium, so, if a nutrition label lists sodium instead of salt, you must multiply the amount by 2.5 to get the equivalent salt content. If 100 g of food contains 1 g of sodium, the salt content of that food will be 2.5 g.
This may be an unnecessary, however, step since health recommendations use milligrams of sodium, not salt, as a reference.
How low is ‘low’?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend that people look carefully at low-salt claims on packaging.
If a serving contains
A food with a high-sodium content is one that contains more than
If a food is salt- or sodium-free, for example, it can contain up to 5 mg (0.005 g) of sodium per serving. Terms such as “light” or “reduced” sodium do not necessarily mean little salt, but that there is less salt than the regular product per serving.
Doctors recommend avoiding foods with a high salt content, and, if possible, selecting those with “no salt added.” You will get plenty of salt from fresh meat, vegetables, and dairy produce.