I'd Rather Salt it Myself

By Terry Dunkle, DietPower founder and editor-in-chief

Mack Dunkle
My dad loved salt. Two years after I took this picture, he died of a heart attack at age 80.

The other day, I went looking for low-salt foods at my local Stop & Shop. I had been reading the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which say that we shouldn't get more than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day—roughly the amount in a teaspoonful of salt. Higher intake can lead to stroke, hypertension, heart attack, and other ailments that kill 800,000 Americans a year. Yet 85 percent of us exceed the recommended sodium limit. Even more troubling, however, is that it's not entirely our fault.

My mother used to berate my father for sprinkling too much salt on his food. Pop was what I call a twiddler: He held the shaker upside-down between thumb and forefinger and twiddled it just enough to keep the grains flowing steadily. The longer he twiddled, the higher my mother's blood pressure rose. "You can't even see it coming out!" she'd yell. To which he'd reply patiently, "Yes I can, Dearie. You know I like salt."

"Salt is the only rock consumed by man," author Margaret Visser once observed. And men use more of this savory mineral than women do. According to the new Guidelines, 95 percent of us ignore the 2300-milligram limit, whereas "only" 75 percent of women do.

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Nevertheless, my dad's twiddling wasn't the main culprit in his salt overload. (He died at age 80 from an apparent heart attack.) Only 10 percent of the sodium in America's diet is sprinkled on at the table. Another 10 percent imbues our foods naturally. The remaining 80 percent is added by manufacturers.

Exactly how much salt do they add? Read a few labels and you'll be amazed. Looking into my kitchen cupboards just now, I find that I can blow my daily sodium limit with just two cups of chicken-noodle soup, 40 bread-and-butter pickle chips, 30 ounces of V-8, or two cups of spaghetti sauce. In fact, unless I cook entirely with raw staples (who has time?), I simply cannot avoid getting too much sodium.

Naked Salads

Why are the food companies force-feeding us salt? Is this some kind of conspiracy? In my mother's day, The Poisons in Our Food and other bestsellers advanced such a theory. I've never believed it, though. Why would Kraft, General Mills, or Chef Boyardee want to poison their customers?

The truth is, adding salt to food brings amazing benefits:

  • Salt draws moisture out of bacteria, causing them to shrivel and die. That's why salt was the main preservative before refrigeration was invented.

  • It makes foods tastier. Dissolved on the tongue, its electrically charged particles of sodium and chlorine react with a food's flavorants, amplifying their chemical signals to the palate and the brain. ("Wow! I'm having a V-8!")

  • It prevents canned vegetables from turning gray. I don't know how it does this ( if you do), but bright colors, of course, are more appetizing.

Download DietPower free trialMeanwhile, salt is amazingly cheap. In the 1300s, trading salt for its own weight in gold made Mansa Musa, of Timbuktu, the richest man on earth. Today, modern mining has cut the wholesale price of salt to about $25 a ton. At that rate, you could buy your lifetime supply for less than $5.

If you were a food manufacturer, could you resist using an additive that dramatically cut spoilage, brightened colors, made people want more of your food, and cost less than a thousandth of a cent per serving?  (What if your competitors were using it?)

Per Serving

Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup


Progresso's Chicken Noodle Soup


Healthy Choice Chicken Noodle Soup


To make matters worse, adding salt to our food actually changes our tolerance for salt. According to studies by Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, the more salt you give people, the more salt they will eventually prefer. In other words, Chef Boyardee's macaroni and cheese may seem a bit salty the first time you taste it, but after a few servings you'll probably find less salty brands disappointingly bland.

You can see where this is leading. We are living in the shadow of a dangerous Salt Race. First, McDonald's wins more palates with more salt; then Wendy's counters with a bigger dose; then Burger King trumps both with a whopping dose—and pretty soon salt is one of the top ingredients in every brand. That's partly why the average American's daily sodium intake has escalated 42 percent since the 1960s, when it was only slightly above today's recommended limit.

It's not entirely the food companies' fault, however. In the late 1980s, as medical evidence for the dangers of salt became undeniable, a great many low-sodium foods appeared on the market. Unfortunately, we didn't buy them. Remember the new Hamburger Helper with 25% less sodium? Launched in the 1990s with a huge advertising campaign, the product sold so poorly that General Mills pulled it off the shelves after 12 weeks. In 2004, Campbell's yanked some of its low-sodium "Healthy Request" soups (not enough requests, apparently). Today, only 4 percent of new foods are low-sodium, and many of those meet a similar fate.

Download DietPower free trialOne reason such foods sell poorly is that when people see "low-salt" or "reduced sodium" on the label, they think the food will lack flavor. (The same thing happens when restaurants put "heart healthy" entrées on the menu—people don't order them.) "Salt is what makes things taste bad when it isn't in them," says an anonymous quotation on this point.

If people were more patient, however, low-salt foods might become wildly popular. According to another study by Beauchamp, most people begin preferring low-salt varieties if they eat them for 10 to 12 weeks. My grandmother hated salad dressing (100-200 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon), preferring to eat her greens naked from the garden. She lived to age 91 without a trace of dementia (a frequent result of hypertension).

Hold Your Fire!

Can we call a truce in the salt wars—not only among manufactures, but between us and our own palates?

In April 2010, following a two-year federal study, the National Institute of Medicine urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to gradually step down the amount of salt allowed in restaurant meals and manufactured foods. Ordinarily, I would find this revolting. (No guv'ment's gonna to tell me what to eat!) But sometimes an issue comes up that demands deeper thought.

Lately, I've been breakfasting each morning with a smiling, white-haired fellow in a black broad-brimmed hat—the Quaker Oats man. He puts absolutely no salt into his cereal. His directions say, "Salt optional." I wield the shaker for just a moment before popping the bowl into the microwave. And every time I shake the shaker, it gives me a powerful, physical reminder. "Go easy!" it says. "Don't be like Pop!"

Download DietPower free trialNevertheless, I sometimes exercise my right to ignore the reminder. My sodium intake is entirely up to me. I am free to determine my own nutritional destiny.

Besides my oatmeal, I wouldn't mind salting my own soup, spaghetti sauce, TV dinners—everything else I cook. To me, it's an expression of personal liberty. Self-seasoning is self-determination.

I don't want to salt my own bread, of course. Some precooked solids would have to be exempt. And the manufacturers would have to find other ways to solve the color problem. (If we can send a man to the moon, surely we can make green beans stay green.) As for the spoilage problem, my impression (from a few days' reading) is that solving it requires less salt than currently used. Maybe the manufacturers will have to advance the "Sell By" date, forcing shippers and grocers to hustle more. But if just-in-time inventories are saving money in other industries, might they not do the same in food retailing? And if they don't, is the extra cost too much to pay for greater health and longevity?

The right to buy food untainted by a proven health hazard is surely as important as the right to bear arms or the rights of free speech and assembly. Where is the law?

Your Opinion

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