OK, don't get me wrong; I am not advocating for Doritos Nacho Cheese and Franks Red Hot sauce, but I would be lying if I did not admit that this combo has been an old family favorite! Well, gone are the days for me and it is rare for my immediately family (we've opted for organic, plain non-GMO, tortilla chips or "healthier" flavored varieties, like Garden of Eatin' Red Hot Blues), but...they do occasionally indulge as do some extended family! I'm trying to keep to around 500 mg. of sodium or less per meal and this snack alone hits 590 mg. Besides that I cannot believe that anyone eats just one personal sized bag, so it is probably more!
I always thought salt was such a necessary part of my diet and it is, but I was unaware of how very little is actually necessary to function and how much over the necessary amounts we as westerners go over daily. So I decided to take a quick look at the role that salt plays in our diets and share it with you.
THE ROLE OF SALT
Sodium, a component of salt is in many foods naturally (meats, eggs, celery, greens, etc.), but salt has been used by communities as far back as the prehistoric ages. It has been a way of helping to preserve or extend the life of fresh foods that would otherwise have a short “shelf-life”. It has been a helpful means of preservation in both hot and cold climates.
In hot weather, bacteria breaks down fresh foods, quite quickly. It is difficult for organisms to thrive in salt, so salt retards the microbial spoilage. Meats and vegetables alike for centuries have been salted with dry salt and brines as well to preserve them for a season, two seasons or in some cases years. Egyptians for instance, would stuff ducks in jars of salt.
WHAT IS SALT?
Salt or NaCl (sodium chloride) is made up of two elements Sodium and Chlorine, in the proportions of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. When we speak of not eating too much salt, we are really referring to the sodium component of salt.
Sodium is a necessary mineral and electrolyte for the body; it helps the body to maintain a balance of fluids, by binding to water, as well as helps with the proper function of the muscular and nervous system. So with that, it is clear that we do need sodium, but it is “how much?”, that trips us up.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
When looking at a nutritional label, I am often miffed. I have no real understanding of the significance of its’ various aspects. Of course, I can see from comparing labels that for instance, one bread has more sodium or carbs than another, but the amounts mean very little to me.
One thing that helps when talking about sodium is to be able to translate the quantities into teaspoonfuls of salt.
Here is a little chart to help with that:
So what does all of this mean in terms of guidelines? Well, the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association say that we only need 500mg of sodium daily for proper human function (No one can be certain as of yet. It may even be as little as 250 mg.) The American Heart Association recommends that we stay in the range of 1500-2300 mg. of sodium per day. The CDC recommends we stay below 2300 mg. of sodium daily.
What does that equate to? That is less than a ¼ tsp (for me that is about 3 pinches of salt) for proper human function, for most and a range of a bit less than 1/3 tsp to about 1 tsp maximum of salt per day for the daily intake guidelines.
ARE THE GUIDELINES FOR EVERYONE THE SAME?
Now mind you this can change a bit from person to person. If you are an extreme athlete, a fireman, or foundry worker (people working in excessively high heat environments), for instance, the acceptable sodium levels could increase. According to the World Health Organization, very little salt is lost through sweating however, so for the average athlete, it is not necessary to increase your sodium levels.
Many think that because they are eating a “healthy diet" or a vegetarian or a vegan diet, that they escape these guidelines. Not necessarily true. Many believe that because they use or the food that they eat contains sea salt or pink salt they are escaping these guidelines. Not true. It is still salt! Eating non-animal products doesn’t mean that you are not eating sodium. Surprisingly there is some level of sodium is in many foods. Here is a link for sodium levels in some common meals for different types of diets and you can see the levels of sodium that they pack.
African Americans, elderly, and middle-aged people, on average, are recommended to stay at or below the 1500 mg guideline, which is about 500 mg of sodium per meal. It also appears that there are certain conditions that may require one to eat a bit more, but these are less common. Clearly it is best to speak with your trusted physician, but on average Americans need to reduce their consumption, not increase!
I DON'T USE SALT THE SHAKER, I'M GOOD!
How far from the mark are we? The CDC recently reported that 90% of Americans consume over the recommended allowance of sodium daily. Most Americans eat around 3400 mg of sodium a day, which is more than twice the 1500 mg. level guideline per day, at 3400 mgs. The CDC, took dietary data from over 15,000 people, surveyed in the 2009-2012 National Health Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). This survey pointed to all racial groups and age groups having an issue with over consumption of sodium. They highlighted that 98% of men and 80% of women consume too much sodium. In addition, 90% of white adults and 85% of black adults consume in excess of the recommended guidelines. That one surprised me. Please remember that the over consumption of sodium extends to our youth as well, since more than 90 percent of children in the US are also consuming over the recommended guidelines for sodium (not including table salt!). Let's get them headed in the right direction.
Where is the sodium coming from? Two important points we miss are that one, sodium already exists naturally in many of the foods we eat and two, just because we do not use the salt shaker, does not mean that we are not getting sodium. I hear so many people saying, “Oh, I don’t use salt on my food!”. Most of the sodium that we get comes from pre-prepared foods, frozen and canned foods, and restaurant meals! Less than 25% comes from our salt shakers.
DECODING THE NUTRITIONAL FACTS
You can find the amount of sodium in your food by looking at the Nutrition Facts label. It is important to pay attention to the serving size. Often times a particular item may not seem to have a high sodium content, until you take into account the serving that the manufacture has listed is far below what you normally consume in a sitting. That bottle of Odwalla Protein Drink is actually 2 servings not one, or that bag of Doritos shown above is 2 servings not one. In the case of Doritos, or chips like this, most people I know definitely will finish the whole bag if they are eating a personal size bag or they will eat the equivalent of more than 1 bag if they are serving themselves from a large bag.
There are key words to look out for in addition to just salt; at the top of list are words containing soda and sodium. There are words like, sodium nitrate (often in cured meats), sodium citrate (for flavor or as a preservative, it is salty and sour), MSG (or monosodium glutamate-the flavor enhancer (in Doritos) - and another issue in itself), sodium benzoate (in a lot of jams, pickles, juice, salad dressings and condiments to prevent the population of bacteria and fungi) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda!).
WARNINGS ON RESTAURANT ITEMS
After educating myself on the basics of this issue, I am shocked that all restaurants are not required to list warnings on the high levels of sodium they pack into their meals. There have been proposals passed in many states improving the labeling and educating around awareness of sodium levels in foods available to purchase. The first to require restaurants to post actual warning labels at restaurants, was NYC. It was passed by the NYC Board of Health in September of 2015 and they began enforcing in in 2016. The law mandates that chain restaurants with 15 locations or more nationwide, must to post warning labels. The warning icon looks like this:
and states that the menu item contains a sodium content that is higher than the total daily allowance of 2,300mg. The law requires that the icon be at least the size of the font the menu item is written in. In addition, they must post the following:
Since 2300 mg is the upper range of sodium one is recommended for consumption daily, it would be nicest if the warning applied to meals that added up to more than 500 mg. For instance, I am hard pressed to find a many Chipotle meal that comes in under the guidelines, you can, but most people would not withhold the items it would require to stay under 500-600 mgs in a meal. The tortillas alone are 600 mg of sodium. If you decided to get the salad instead of a burrito to forgo the tortilla and got salad dressing with your salad you would have just increased the sodium content of your salad by s 800 mg.
Check out this link to some common foods we eat. It may surprise you. Many fast food chains have calculators of nutrition facts online. I was crushed to look at Chipotle's! If you frequent Chipotle, try this out and see how much sodium is in your favorite meal. Taco Bell, for instance has one as well. I do not eat at these places typically, but I have in a pinch, on a long road trip tried a bean burrito, thinking it was fairly innocuous, beans, tortilla, salsa...that's it...oh yes, and 1060 mgs of sodium! Yikes! Or how about 1420 mgs of sodium in my old standby of bean soup and a roll at Panera? A monster has been made! I laughed so hard yesterday as I went through Costco; I was contemplating the milligrams of sodium in different items and looking at demonstrators offering ("pushing"), what is usually the much coveted samples, as if they were offering poison!
“Researchers project that reducing average daily American sodium consumption by about one third could reduce blood pressure and decrease the number of new and recurrent cases of heart attack and stroke, annually averting up to 81,000 deaths and saving $20 billion in yearly health care costs.”
I hope this has been a little helpful in getting you on your way to understanding the topic of sodium in our diets better. I am happy to see that this issue is becoming not only a more serious topic of discussion among health organizations, but that policy is beginning to reflect the gravity of the situation. I hope that the lawmakers and merchants will be swift and brave for the public's sake!