Why is there so much salt in processed foods?

 

Slate

The Institute of Medicine concluded last week that there is no reason for people to keep their sodium consumption below 1,500 milligrams per day, as had been previously recommended for most adults.

The panel’s approved level of 2,300 milligrams per day, however, is still far below the average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium that Americans consume per person per day, much of it from processed foods.

Why do processed foods have so much salt?

Because salt tastes great. Salt is often lumped together with fat and sugar, two other ingredients that humans find irresistible. (Michael Moss’ recent best-seller, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” has an excellent discussion of the power of salt.)

But sugar and fat are indicators of high caloric content, something that would have helped our ancestors survive. Salt is required only in small amounts, so it’s not entirely clear why we love it so much, or why we love so much of it. But we clearly do. Young people love salt. Old people love salt even more. Infants crave salt. It’s not surprising that food manufacturers pile salt into their products.

Commercial food-makers, indisputably, use more salt than we do at home. Almost all of the top sources of sodium in the American diet — including meat pizza, white bread, cheese, hot dogs, ham, ketchup, white rolls and flour tortillas — come from foods typically purchased in prepared form. There are several possible explanations for this.

After years of nagging from public health experts, home cooks may hold back on salt for dietary reasons. Some commentators believe that packaged foods have higher salt content because they are otherwise bland, perhaps due to a lack of freshness. That’s possible, but there’s little evidence that salt-free processed foods would be otherwise flavorless. Besides, restaurants that use fresh foods also salt their foods well above home-cooking levels.

The more likely explanation is the quasi-addictive effect of high salt consumption. Food sellers don’t just want you to like their products, they want you to crave them in increasing quantities. The more salt a person eats, the more salt he or she wants.

In 2011 researchers at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, the source of many salt consumption studies, found that babies who eat salty, starchy foods almost immediately begin to crave salt at higher levels than their salt-naive peers. There are even indications from rodent studies that a mother’s salt intake, transmitted to her baby in her breast milk, can affect its salt cravings later in life. Perhaps even more importantly for the processed food industry, people who lower their sodium intake for just two to three months experience a measurable decrease in salt cravings. (Jonathan Swift was aware of this effect: After a prolonged period of salt deprivation, the main character in “Gulliver’s Travels” becomes convinced that salty foods are merely a way to sell alcohol.)

In 1937 Irish-born physician Robert Alexander McCance convinced several colleagues to join him on a salt fast and to further reduce their internal sodium levels with heavy exercise and sweating. After several days, they had very little appetite and their experience of flavor completely changed. McCance claimed that rinsing his mouth with sodium restored the taste of food, suggesting that salt is an important contributor to our interest in any foods, not just those with high salt levels.

Read more Health stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
Gena Barr, outreach coordinator for the University of Miami Health System's Division of Adolescent Medicine, demonstrates how she conducts a urine sample test that determines the presence of STDs. Barr, 39, has been working at the UM clinic since 2004. “I just wanted to help people in the community," she said, adding that the clinic, which primarily serves domestic abuse victims, gave her the opportunity.

    Healthcare

    STDs are on the rise in Miami-Dade

    Cases of chlamydia and syphilis have doubled in the last seven years, causing concern and speculation about the increase

  • Skin Deep

    What’s the difference between skin rejuvenation and skin resurfacing?

    Although the terms “skin rejuvenation” and “skin resurfacing” are often used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference. Rejuvenation is anything that makes the skin look better—i.e. skincare products, treatments or in-office procedures—while resurfacing refers to a treatment or procedure that physically removes the top layer of the skin. Simply put, skin resurfacing is just one way to accomplish skin rejuvenation.

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">POWER IN THE TEAM: </span>Tina Ament, of Alexandria, Virginia, holds onto a bungie cord connected to her guide, Kevin Streeter, as they go for a run on July 6 in Gainesville, Virginia. Ament, who is blind, is training for the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.

    Fitness

    Visually impaired athlete prepares for Ironman triathalon in Hawaii

    It is grueling enough to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles, but imagine doing all of that when you can only see a blur of light ahead of you.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category