In ancient Rome, salt was such a valuable commodity that Roman soldiers were paid a “salarium” with which to buy salt. This gave rise to the age-old saying that someone is “worth (or not worth) his salt.”
The two major components of salt are sodium and chloride. The human body needs both to function properly, and indeed, human taste buds are programmed to seek out salty food. Sodium helps to regulate the amount of fluid, including blood, in the body. Chloride is a component of gastric (stomach) juice, which aids in the digestion and absorption of many nutrients.
Consuming too much sodium, however, can contribute to numerous health problems. Today, salt is cheap and plentiful, and most Americans consume more than the recommended amount. According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, an adequate intake of salt for adults ages 19–50 is 3.8 grams of salt (or 1500 milligrams of sodium). For adults ages 51–70 it’s 3.3 grams of salt (or 1300 milligrams of sodium), and for adults 71 and older, it’s 3.0 grams of salt (or 1200 milligrams of sodium).
However, one study estimates that men consume an average of 10.4 grams of salt (about 2 teaspoons) each day, and women, 7.3 grams (about 1.5 teaspoons) — amounts that represent an increase over previous years. Most of this salt — 75% to 80% — comes from packaged foods, which use salt and various other forms of sodium as a preservative as well as a flavoring, and from restaurant food, which is often heavily salted.
A lifetime of high sodium intake puts the body at risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, stomach cancer, and potentially osteoporosis. Having diabetes raises the risk of hypertension, and having both diabetes and hypertension greatly raises the risk of kidney problems, heart disease, retinopathy (an eye disease), and stroke. Keeping blood glucose and blood pressure levels in your target range as much as possible is important to help protect your kidneys and blood vessels from harm.
Lowering your sodium intake
Most people are aware that consuming too much salt or sodium is no good for their blood pressure, but it can prove challenging to drastically lower the amount of sodium you consume unless you cook all your own food, use only fresh ingredients, and add no salt to your food. (Few foods naturally contain any appreciable amount of sodium.) Even if you are up to this challenge, suddenly switching to a low-salt diet can result in bland, unsatisfying meals if your taste buds have been programmed to like salty food. Fortunately, in a few months, you can reprogram your taste buds to accept less salty food (and rich or sweet foods, for that matter). That’s where salt substitutes may be of use. (See “Salts and Salt Substitutes” for more information.)
But before you replace the salt in your home cooking with salt substitutes, make sure you have really removed the salt and sodium from your spice cabinet and pantry. First, be aware that “salted” spices like garlic salt and adobo are mostly salt and therefore high in sodium; it is better to season your food with powders such as garlic or onion powder, which do not have added sodium. If you are unsure if your spice mixture has sodium, just check the ingredients list: It will list “salt” if it is present.