Too much salt?

April 30, 2008 9:31:24 AM PDT
The human body needs salt to function. Sodium is the main component of the body's extracellular fluids, and it helps carry nutrients into the cells. Sodium also helps regulate other body functions, such as blood pressure and fluid volume, and sodium works on the lining of blood vessels to keep the pressure balance normal. But, Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, a research nutritionist at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, says what most people don't realize is that the amount of salt we actually need "is minor." The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., has determined that the recommended safe minimum daily amount is about 500 milligrams of sodium with an upper limit of 2,400 milligrams. But, the council has said that lowering sodium intake to 1,800 milligrams would probably be healthier.

Research has shown that most Americans consume two- to three-times the amount of sodium that is healthy for the human body, and an estimated 75 percent to 80 percent of that daily intake is coming from processed foods, particularly frozen and prepared foods and also fast foods and foods served at restaurants. (Source: American Medical Association)

SALT AND YOUR HEALTH: Too much salt in the diet can cause hypertension and lead to kidney disease, heart attacks, strokes and other medical problems (AMA). Now, more and more medical professionals are calling attention to the dangers of too much salt in American diets. Dr. Stephen Havas, Vice President for Science, Quality and Public Health for the American Medical Association says, "The deaths attributed to excess salt consumption represent a huge toll -- the equivalent of a jumbo jet with more than 400 passengers crashing every day of the year, year after year." Havas estimates that reducing the salt in our diets by 50 percent could save at least 150,000 lives per year in the U.S. He says, "Americans don't consume large amounts of salt because they request it, but often do so unknowingly because manufacturers and restaurants put it in food."

TIME FOR NEW LIMITS? The AMA, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest are part of a growing movement, encouraging the FDA to set new limits on the amount of salt that can be added to foods, though food lobbying groups including the Food Products Association oppose such regulation. In Congressional hearings in late 2007, The AMA asked the FDA to set strict limits on salt in processed foods and work to better educate the public on the benefits of a low-sodium diet.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has these recommendations:

  • Change salt's regulatory status from "generally recognized as safe" to "food additive" and set limits on the salt content of foods that provide the most salt to the average diet.
  • Encourage food manufacturers and restaurants to use less salt.
  • Require chain restaurants to disclose on menus and in brochures the sodium content of foods.
  • Improve labeling of packaged foods to highlight those that are high in salt.

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