Processed Food (5) - Salt and You

Processed Food (5) - Salt and You

Salt, one of the three pillars of the processed food industry, is the object of our attention in this post. It is certainly the most important ingredient in food processing along with it's pals oil and sugar.

Salt, oil, and sugar (SOS) are the ingredients that provide each product a precise point of perfect flavor, just-right texture, and overall deliciousness that make us reach for chip after chip.

Salt has two components: sodium and chloride. It's the sodium in salt that has the most impact on how food tastes and feels while at the same time quite a negative effect on us when consumed in excess. And, because so many processed foods containing sodium are addictive, we do tend to eat way beyond recommended healthy levels.

Why do we need sodium?

Before we discuss the many negative aspects of overusing sodium, let's talk about why we need it. For all its bad press, sodium, in appropriate amounts, has necessary functions in our bodies. For example, an appropriate amount of sodium is required to help maintain body fluid functions, to help normalize blood pressure, to facilitate muscle contractions, and to transmit electrical impulses between nerves. HA! Try to go without all of those.

How much sodium do we need?

For many years, there were no set guidelines for daily amounts of sodium. It wasn't until 2005 that clear guidelines were set by the government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. They said that we should take in a maximum of 2300 milligrams per day.

In his book, Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss says,

If people could go only part of the way in reaching the 2,300 goal, by reducing their intake of salt by even half a teaspoon a day, this alone would prevent 92,000 heart attacks, 59,000 strokes, and 81,000 deaths...

Later, a limit of 1500 mg/day of sodium was designated for those with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and anyone over 51 years.

How and why do manufacturers use so much salt?

There are two main secondary reasons food manufacturers add salt to most of their processed foods. They are: (1) as a preservative (to increase the shelf-life of food and to keep it from spoiling), and (2) to enhance the taste. Both of these, of course, help these manufacturers meet their chief goal -- to MAKE MONEY. 

What does salt magically do to food?

Salt makes everything taste better. In addition to being a flavor enhancer, salt enhances the color of food, the freshness of food as well as the longevity of food.

And, an advantage for the food companies, but not for you or your health, is that salt has a powerful addictive quality that sends you back for more food even when you know you've had enough. Yes, salt plays a huge role in ensuring you want more chips, more crackers, more everything.

Food scientists know what they are doing. If their formula is even off slightly, the food is not acceptable. Moss states of salt,

Cornflakes, for example, taste metallic without it. Crackers are bitter and soggy and stick to the roof of your mouth. Ham turns so rubbery it can bounce.

What does salt do to you?

In large amounts, sodium pulls fluids from the body’s tissues and into the blood, which raises the blood volume and compels the heart to pump more forcefully. The result: high blood pressure.

Consumption of these salty products leads not only to high blood pressure, but it encourages overeating that leads to obesity and the host of complications brought on by that.

And it's tough enough to lose weight to regain our health without all these food scientists working day and night to pinpoint our taste bliss point to make it even harder for us to give up the foods that pack on the pounds.

How to reduce salt in your diet

Did you know that approximately 75% of the sodium consumed by the average American comes from processed food. The other 25% comes from what you add while cooking and from the shaker while eating? I always thought the salt shaker was the problem, but it's not.

To drastically reduce your intake of sodium, give up processed food. If that's too drastic for you, analyze the sodium content on food labels and keep track of how much you are consuming. Stop when your total reaches 1500 daily milligrams or whatever amount you and your physician determine is appropriate to meet your health needs.

Although it may not feel like it at first, but when you try to break the salt habit, you have salt sensitivity on your side. Salt sensitivity is how much you react to salt. A study showed that when eaters reduced their sodium intake by half for a few weeks, they did not necessarily reduce their liking of salt, but they found they did not enjoy it in the old quantities; thus, they had become more sensitive to the taste of salt and needed less of it to feel satisfied. This certainly is hopeful for those trying to wean themselves from salt.

Food labels - how to identify sodium by other names

If you continue to eat processed food, one way to cut down on your sodium intake, is to check the food label for all types of salt. To do so, you need to be aware of what other words in the ingredient list mean salt, such as sodium, soda, baking soda, baking powder, monosodium glutamate, disodium phosphate, and basically any ingredient with the word sodium or Na in it. Also, check the sodium content per serving on the food label, keep track of your intake, and systematically reduce your intake over time.

This and that about salts and salt substitutes.

Salt Varieties

I think that information about the many different kinds of salts (sea salt, Himalayan salt, pink salt, Kosher salt, etc.) is a big topic and deserves a post of its own. For now, this post is to alert you to some of the adverse effects of sodium and how the food processing industry uses salt to get us hooked on their products.


One thing you should know is that if you do give up salt altogether, you need to make sure you get some iodine from your diet (a small amount every day) for thyroid health. If you don't use salt that contains iodine or eat it in your food (milk or other dairy products including cheese, yogurt and butter, seafood including fish, sushi, shellfish, kelp or seaweed), I've read that you can get the appropriate amount in some multi-vitamins. Check the package label to make sure. 

Salt Substitutes

There are many salt substitutes out there. I have used Mrs. Dash products on occasion but would have to do some research to write about others. I would suggest that you check the labels carefully. Sometimes, low salt items just make you feel as if you want to eat more of it to get that salty taste. Substitutes are not always the answer. It might be better to develop your own spice blend without sodium and enjoy that. After all, the wonderful thing about salt is that after going without it for a while, it tastes really bitter to you in the old quantities you used to apply to everything.


There you have it -- more than you probably wanted to know about salt.

By way of summary, let me just say that I've spent this amount of time on salt because we, as Americans, on average, consume 10 to 20 times more salt than we need. Our over-reliance on or addiction to processed foods has developed deep salt cravings in us.

It seems if we could just reduce our reliance on the comfort and convenience of processed foods we would be going a long way toward improving our health overall. It appears that food manufacturers are only going so far in reducing the amount they use in their products. After all, their main priority is sales... not our health. So it's up to us. We can do this.

I hope this article has been helpful to you and that you find a good healthy balance in your eating.


be kind - be the change

be the healthiest version of yourself


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