The Assault on Salt

Americans are consuming more than twice the recommended daily amount of sodium.

June 22, 2010, 3:50 PM

June 24, 2010 — -- Most American men consume about 11 grams of salt every day. It's one of our basic tastes, and it's in just about everything we eat.

Although we do need some salt to live, many doctors say those 11 grams -- less than two teaspoons a day -- are killing 150,000 people each year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and doctors have declared a renewed attack in the war on salt. This attack is aimed at restaurants that overuse it and the manufacturers that liberally use salt to process food.

The push is also an attempt to educate consumers, who, for the most part, are oblivious to the amount of salt in their food.

According to Dr. Frank Sacks, a professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at Harvard who is at the forefront of the war on salt, the food industry and our own taste buds have contributed to our salt consumption.

"If we like the taste of salt, it's a Catch-22," he said.

Sacks said that as more and more salt is added to food, people become accustomed to the taste.

"Then they'll add more and more of it to give people that jolt," he said. "In a way, it's kind of like a narcotic."

Sacks recently completed a study on the effects of salt on blood pressure. As most people know, too much salt can lead to an increase in blood pressure. He said that if Americans reduced their salt intake by half, it could revolutionize health care.

According to Sacks, a 50-percent reduction would "pretty much wipe out most heart attacks and strokes."

But with salt lurking in everyday foods such as bread, cold cuts and ketchup, that is easier said than done.

"Bread contains the highest amount of sodium in processed food," said Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist. "We need the salt to form the texture to preserve the bread, and so forth."

Keeping an eye on sodium count is as easy as examining food labels, Cheung said.

"The lesson is [that] we need to read the label carefully," Cheung said. "Pause, take a look and read."

Americans Consume Way Too Much Salt

The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

However, Americans on average consume nearly three times that much. The average TV dinner contains 1,680 mg of sodium, more than one day's worth. A box of Lunchables, a favorite with kids, has almost half of the daily sodium intake for an adult.

Beyond the grocery store, there's also the problem of dining out. In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called out the Red Lobster food chain for the "Admiral's Feast," a combination platter of deep-fried seafoods that contained nearly three times a day's worth of sodium at 4,400 mg.

Olive Garden isn't much better: Its "Tour of Italy" dish of lasagna, chicken parmesan and alfredo has more than two days' worth of salt, 3,830 mg.

Darden Restaurants, Inc., the parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden said it is looking at reducing the amount of salt it uses in its restaurants as part of a broader effort to provide healthier fare.

When asked if it would be preferable for government to mandate the amount of sodium restaurants can include in their food, Sacks said he would prefer it to be a voluntary movement, although he was skeptical it would be successful.

"I think that we need to have inducements to get the food industry overall to reduce the salt," he said. "One group, one company may be hesitant to do that because the competitor is not. So I think we need to level the playing field and really push them to do so."

But some companies already have started to decrease the amount of salt they use.

Kraft has already trimmed sodium levels in those Lunchables by 10% and they've vowed to cut 10 percent of the sodium from all of its North American products over the next two years.

Heinz aims to decrease its sodium usage in ketchup by 15 percent.

General Mills, Sara Lee, Campbells and others have made similar claims.

Other companies are changing the way we eat salt. Food scientists at PepsiCo Inc., makers of Lay's chips, are developing so-called "designer salts," with crystals that are shaped differently to pack a more salty punch while using less sodium.

Subtle Changes, Big Difference

As for Sacks, he's taking a more grassroots approach: He approached the chef at his favorite restaurant in Boston and asked him to reduce the amount of salt he used in his dishes by 25 percent.

Researchers say that when salt is reduced by one quarter, our taste buds cannot recognize the difference.

"In the old days, I would have just heavily salted the fish. I would have flipped it over and done it on both sides," said Gordon Hamersley, head chef at Hamersley's Bistro in Boston. "What I used to do and what I'm doing now, there's a big difference."

Hamersley said that, so far, his customers have not complained about the change and no one has sent the food back. Still, it is a significant change for those in the kitchen.

"You know the old adage: 'The difference between a good cook and a great cook is a pound of butter and a box of salt,'" he said. "We were brought up that way. That's how we think."

So how does one go about changing that line of thinking for other chefs?

"It's a macho thing," Hamersley said. "We just have to beat on them."

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