Salt: Tastes great while it’s killing you!

How much sodium are you consuming? The answer will shock you.

by Robert D. Lucas, Ph.D.
Food Biotechnologist

Recently, on prime time Caribbean Broadcasting Television (CBC –TV News at 7pm); a public notice about the adverse effects of salt in the human diet has been given extensive coverage. The gist of the message disseminated, was the need for a reduction in the consumption of salt in the diet. This is a very laudable effort on the part of the authorities, to educate the consuming public. I will now give a critical review of the notice, as-well-as indicating the function of common salt in the human diet and in processed foods. This is of some use, since there is a high incidence of hypertension and diabetes locally.

Before I start on the above mentioned exercise, it is necessary to indicate that, there are many salts used in the food industry. The salt referred to in the notice was common salt or sodium chloride (NaCl). This is the compound normally referred by lay people in alluding to the salt content of foods. Sodium Chloride consists of one atom of sodium and one of chlorine. The sodium component of common salt is responsible for imparting flavor in foods. Gillette. 1985. “ Flavor Effects of Sodium Chloride.” Food Technology. 39:6: 47-52.). It is also responsible for the adverse health effects in humans, when consumed in excess. “The physiological role of sodium is to provide the proper osmotic balance in the extra cellular fluids of the body.” (Sebranek and others. 1983. “Physiological role of Dietary Sodium in Human Health and implications of Sodium reduction in Muscle Foods.” Food Technology. 37: 7:51-59).

The effect of sodium on the extra cellular fluid volume (ECFV) has led to its implication as a causal factor in hypertension. A look at the nutritional facts section of the label on processed foods reveals that only the Na (sodium) part of common salt is listed. It is therefore, misleading to allude to the necessity of reducing the salt content of foods. Emphasis should be on the reduction of sodium(Na) in the diet.

Since the 1970’s, the sodium(Na) content of restaurant and processed foods in America have increased. Americans now consume 3,400 milligrams(mg) of sodium (Na) every day exceeding the daily recommended allowance of 2,300 mg/day (Tarver, T. 2010. “Desalting the Food Grid.”  Food Technology. 64:8: 45-50). It should be noted that, the nutritional facts sections of processed foods, indicate that the latter normally, contain more than seventy percent of the daily requirement of sodium [Na] ( Tarver, T. 2010).

Most foods consumed by humans contain sodium. For example, hams contain sodium derived from the following compounds (salts): sodium nitrite, sodium tri-poly phosphate and sodium chloride (common salt).  The consumer is therefore faced, with the cumulative effective of sodium (Na) from these three sources. In fruit juices, sodium (Na) is found in the form of either sodium benzoate or sodium meta-bisulfate. In baked goods such as bread, sodium is found in the form of sodium bicarbonate or baking powder. In some foods, the nutritional facts may also report be as sodium ( Na) and  as its equivalent in terms of sodium chloride. For example, in baked beans 0.3g of sodium(Na) per 100g is also expressed as the equivalent of 0.9 g of sodium chloride. This is normally the case for foods from the European Union.

The human body needs modest amounts of sodium (Na) to facilitate absorption of nutrients and the proper functioning of cells. In the food-processing industry, sodium enhances the flavor of processed foods, masks bitter and acidic tastes and increases the sweetness of sugar. In addition, it has preservatives properties.“Unfortunately, a significant reduction of sodium content in virtually any food item, results in a concurrent reduction in flavor and hence consumer acceptance.”(Gillette. 1985).  To counter act this trend, flavor enhancers can be used. These include mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), autolyzed yeast extracts, hudrolyzed vegetable protein and soy sauce. All of these compounds contain glutamate. When MSG is added to foods, since it also contains sodium (Na), it is necessary to reduce the amount of common salt (NaCl) added.  Use is made of what in physical chemistry is known as the common ion effect; that is, the effect of the sodium in MSG  on the sodium of common salt. When flavor enhancers are used, the amount of sodium chloride added to food is reduced. Additionally, potassium chloride(KCl) can be used, to reduce the levels of Na (sodium) in foods. The latter, however, can impart a bitter metallic taste to foods.

Robert D. Lucas, Ph.D.
Food Biotechnologist.
Bridgetown, Barbados

16 Comments

Filed under Barbados, Consumer Issues, Health

16 responses to “Salt: Tastes great while it’s killing you!

  1. More info. needed

    Extremely informed article!

    A little above my head with respect to the chemistry bit; but I can follow the gist of what’s said.

    Would have liked you to have added a little more with respect to the outcome of consistent salt intake over time on the human body.

    However, a very good article.

    Thanks

    Facts

  2. Dean Miller

    This is for regular table salt which should always be avoided. Sea salt is much healthier and doesn’t have such adverse effects.

  3. theNickster

    Isn’t adding MSG going to make a bad situation worse?

  4. Robert D. Lucas

    For the benefit of Mr. Dean Miller, sea salt consists of an atom of sodium and an atom of chlorine. In addition, if the sea salt is not purified it will also be contaminated by other salts in the sea water.For example, sodium nirtite, sodium phosphate etc. There is no real difference between sea salt and commercial common salt. all consist of sodium and chlorine.
    In the article, I alluded to the fact that, when MSG is used,it is necessary to reduce the level of common salt added to a meal. I mentioned the common ion effect. All this means is as follows. Suppose in the absence of MSG, one uses 1 g of common salt. If one wants to use MSG and common salt instead, one can cut down the amount of salt used to say 0.5g and use 0.3g of MSG. The sodium present in the MSG acts in conjunction with the sodium in the common salt. In addition, the glutamate part of the MSG modifies the flavour or enhances it,increasing the salty taste.
    Robert D. Lucas.

  5. bp

    Just wondering, would living in a sweaty environment make any difference in the ‘daily requirement’?

  6. Dean Miller

    Dr. Lucas,

    Sea salts contain about 80% of natural sodium chloride, and other naturally occurring elements as opposed to regular salt, which is highly processed and is almost 100% inorganic sodium chloride.

    The “unbalanced” and inorganic nature of common salt is what makes it so dangerous compared to natural unprocessed salts.

  7. Robert D.Lucas

    I will deal with Mr. Dean Miller and then with bp. When rain falls ,surface run off occurs.The water passes over the soil. In any particular area, the majority of the elements found in the “Period Table” are present. In other words, all of the compounds which contain sodium are present. Following surface run-off, the salt -laden waters enter the sea. It therefore follows, that sea water is a hodge -podge of various salts. Since sea water is a mixture of various salts.One of the dissolved salts may be present in high concentration. Sodium chloride or common salt is the salt present in high concentrations. To recover sea salt from sea water, if the concentration of sodium chloride was twenty percent would not be economically viable. It would better to do so from inland salt deposits. Sea salt is an inorganic compound. In the case of bp.; there are persons who are salt emitters. I am salt emitter. Salt emitters are person who on exercising, deposit white saline deposits on their skin or clothing. The idea of salt emitters has been documented in the New Times New Paper a couple of years ago. It therefore follows, that persons who sweat a lot and deposit salt on their skin or clothing fall in to this class.
    Robert D. Lucas.

  8. bp

    And in the case of a salt emitter, would their sodium requirement be higher?

  9. bob

    Yes. This especially so, after a rapid walk in the hot sun which results in copius sweating.
    Robert D. Lucas.

  10. Dean Miller

    Dr. Lucas,

    I never said that sea salt only has a 20% sodium chloride concentration, just that it has a lower concentration of sodium chloride than regular table salt. And as you pointed out, the sodium and other elements in sea salt come from natural sources as opposed to table salt. Your body has a harder time dealing with the inorganic results of chemically refined table salt.

  11. Gloria

    Not ALL salt is bad for ALL people ALL of the time! Yes, prolonged overuse of sodium to add taste to greasy food is bad, but likely the grease does more damage than the salt.

    Tourists come to tropics and dehydrate from airplanes, heat/humidity sweating, made worse by drinking, dancing, sun, salt water, and drinking too much plain water which flushes more salt. The loss of electrolytes and reduced blood volume (which even plain sodium helps against) makes the heart less effective and so it is overworking. They then have sudden heart attacks. The symptoms are mild and vague, such as fatigue and possibly a headache, which many people ignore.

    If you live up north and come to a warm place on vacation and keep craving salt, EAT IT – listen to your body giving you warnings! That is, if salt is still on the table in a shaker after guys like this convince everyone they are better off to ban it. And drink something like Gatoraide, don’t worry about the fructose – it won’t kill you while you are on vacation, but the lack of salts just might.

  12. Ping Pong

    @Dean Miller

    what do you mean by “inorganic” sodium chloride? Is there a form of sodium chloride that has a carbon bond i.e organic? The following statement made by you can only be deemed as nonsense :

    ” The “unbalanced” and inorganic nature of common salt is what makes it so dangerous compared to natural unprocessed salts.”

    In terms of health benefits there is no difference between “sea salt” and common “table salt” both are mainly sodium chloride.

    See http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sea-salt/AN01142

  13. More info. needed

    @Ping Pong,
    I’m a layperson on this matter, but your submission seems logical, re. “for health benefits, no difference between sea and common table salt”; all are salt; and all are very dangerous with prolonged and large usage.

  14. Bob

    Mr. Miller: The concentration of sodium chloride in the sea is obviously not as high as the concentration of pure salt. However,when purified salt is used, it is used in very small concentrations in food of about the order of two percent. At this level, the salt is not hard on the body. In addition, unpurified sea salt contains a host of other salts some of which can be highly toxic to the user. You must remember that ,sea mixture contains all of the salts found on earth.
    Errata. Copius should read copious.
    Robert D. Lucas.

  15. Dean Miller

    @Ping

    Inorganic only because what remains of regular salt has been heavily processed and chemically cleaned as your article points out, as opposed to sea salts, which are not chemically cleaned to removed the other trace minerals. Corn in a can is a bit different to corn on a cob grown in your garden even though it is still corn…yes?

    @Bob

    That is true, but I believe the same amount of unpurified salt (with the lower sodium chloride concentration) would be even easier on the body. While it is true there may be some sea salts with other toxic trace minerals, there are others with trace minerals which are very beneficial for the body.

  16. Ping Pong

    The term “organic compound” refers to those substances that have carbon in their molecules. There are some compounds that although having carbon in their molecules are referred to as inorganic. Sodium chloride is obviously termed inorganic not because of the method of processing by which it was produced but because there are no carbon bonds in its molecule. Therefore table salt is inorganic and sea salt is inorganic. There are essentially the same thing. Table salt is pure sodium chloride while sea salt is sodium chloride mixed with some other salts (i.e. salts are ionic compounds that can result from the neutralization reaction of an acid and a base). These other salts are what differentiates sea salt from table salt in culinary (food preparation) terms. The sea salts may impart a different taste in food as compared to table salt.

    In terms of health consequences there is no difference. One is advised to moderate one’s intake of sodium regardless of source. As indicated by another poster it is the intake of sodium that is to be monitored. Persons with kidney problems are particularly at risk and if the tolerable level of sodium is exceeded whether from table salt or sea salt, then their health can be compromised. Table salt may actually be healthier as iodine is often added to the table salt and marketed as iodized salt. Iodine is important for good health and there are a number of illnesses associated with iodine deficiency. Iodine content in sea salt varies greatly. Thus in terms of health benefits (or risks) there is NO DIFFERENCE between the two sources of sodium chloride. As the current public campaign advises, we should all seek to reduce the overall intake of sodium particularly in the form of sodium chloride.

    It is a marketing ploy exploiting the scientific ignorance of the general public and appealing to sentiment whereby something labeled “natural” or implying that it is “organic” is thought to be less harmful than something labeled “processed” or “inorganic” when both sources of salt are inorganic and are produced by human processing to meet packaging, aesthetic and public health standards.