“Stop using so much salt. It’s not good for your health!”. If you are one of those people who consume a lot of salt, you have probably heard this advice many times.
Excess sodium in the body is currently an extremely controversial topic, the extra intake of sodium being considered a determining factor in many health problems, such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease and stroke. According to the Food and Drug Administration, American adults consume an average of 3,400 milligrams of salt each day, or roughly 1½ teaspoons, and most of it (70 percent) comes from sodium in prepared foods.
On the other hand, sodium has beneficial roles in the body. Keep reading to learn more about the difference between sodium and salt, how much sodium does the body needs, its advantages and disadvantages, different types of salt, what happens if you consume too much sodium, and what’s the maximum amount of salt you should eat per day.
Salt and sodium: differences & definition
Salt is an ionic compound formed by the reaction between an acid and a base, but most often it refers to the term used to designate table salt, sodium chloride (which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride by weight) used for seasoning culinary preparations in all the kitchens of the world. Therefore, salt contains sodium, but these chemicals mustn't be confused.
Sodium is an intensely reactive chemical element that isn't found freely in nature. It goes through spontaneous combustion in contact with water. Therefore, although it’s essential for human nutrition, sodium cannot be consumed in its pure state. When salt is ingested, sodium and chloride ions separate, making sodium available to the body for use.
Sodium in the body
Sodium is one of the most abundant minerals in the human body. The mean body content of sodium in an adult is 92 grams distributed in the blood (40% of the total sodium in the body is in the extracellular fluid), in the bone tissue, and in the connective and cartilaginous tissue.
Sodium plays an extremely important role in regulating the body's homeostasis:
- together with potassium, it participates in the regulation of the water balance
- participates in maintaining ionic balance and neuromuscular excitability
- the predominant distribution of sodium in the extracellular space and body fluids is due to an active mechanism exerted on the cell membrane (sodium pump), by which sodium ions are permanently released into the extracellular space for use by other cells.
What foods have sodium?
Most of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from processed or prepared foods. These include bread, pizza, cold cuts and bacon, cheese, soups, fast food, and prepared dinners, such as pasta, meat and egg dishes.
Some foods naturally contain sodium. These include all vegetables and dairy products, meat, and shellfish. Depending on the amount of sodium in the foods, they can be divided into:
- foods low in sodium (0 - 10 mg / 100g - fruits, vegetables)
- foods with a medium sodium content (10 - 100mg / 100g - milk, meat, fish)
- foods rich in sodium (100 - 1,000 mg / 100g - sausages, canned salted meat)
Types of salt: Which one is the healthiest?
Table salt (also known as iodized salt) is probably the most common type of salt that fills the salt shaker in any kitchen. It’s heavily processed to remove impurities, which may also remove trace minerals. Iodine, a trace mineral, was added to salt in 1924 to prevent goiter and hypothyroidism, medical conditions caused by iodine deficiency.
Sea salt is obtained by evaporating ocean or seawater. It's also composed mostly of sodium chloride and may contain zinc, potassium, and iron, but in very small percentages, depending on where it comes from. Because it’s not highly refined like table salt, it may have an uneven color. It’s believed that the blacker it is, the more minerals and impurities it has. Unfortunately, some of these impurities can contain metals found in the ocean, like lead.
Himalayan pink salt is considered to be perhaps the healthiest and richest salt in the world, and is extracted from Pakistan, from the Khewra mine. Its pink hue comes from small amounts of iron oxide, is less processed and contains small amounts of minerals including iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Kosher salt is a coarsely-grained salt named for its use in the traditional preparation of Kosher food. It doesn’t contain iodine and doesn’t dissolve as quickly as table salt.
Recommended sodium intake
It’s estimated that your body only needs 186 mg of sodium per day to function properly. However, this amount may be too small for your body to get the energy and the recommended intake of other essential nutrients it needs.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that healthy adults consume 1,500 mg (1.5 grams) of sodium per day. At the same time, the American Heart Association, USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that healthy adults limit their daily sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg (2.3 grams or one teaspoon).
Recommended sodium intake in children
- to 3 years - no more than 2g salt a day (0.8g sodium)
- 4 to 6 years - no more than 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium)
- 7 to 10 years - no more than 5g salt a day (2g sodium)
- 11 years and over - no more than 6g salt a day (2.4g sodium)
Babies under 1 years old should have less than 1g of salt a day.
What happens if you eat too much sodium?
Research has shown that excessive sodium intake can increase blood pressure. The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology trial is one of the largest studies that has established a direct link between sodium and high blood pressure. The researchers analyzed the urine sodium levels of over 100,000 people from 18 countries across five continents. They found that those who consumed more sodium had significantly higher blood pressure than those with lower intakes.
Other health effects of too much sodium
A high salt diet can also contribute to:
- kidney disease
- occurrence of renal stones
A guide to common claims and what they mean
You can always check for nutrient claims on food and beverage packages to identify those that contain less sodium:
What it says
What it means
Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
Very Low Sodium
35 mg of sodium or less per serving
140 mg of sodium or less per serving
At least 25% less sodium than the regular product
Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted
At least 50% less sodium than the regular product
No-Salt-Added or Unsalted
No salt is added during processing – but these products may not be salt/sodium-free unless stated
Another thing you should pay attention to when reading the product label is the ingredients that may contain salt or sodium compounds, such as:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Baking soda (also called sodium bicarbonate)
- Baking powder
- Disodium phosphate
- Sodium alginate
- Sodium citrate
- Sodium nitrite
Hyponatremia occurs when the concentration of sodium in the blood (serum sodium) is abnormally low. Sodium is an electrolyte and helps regulate the amount of water inside and around cells. In patients with hyponatremia, the sodium level in the body is diluted, the water level in the body rises, and the cells begin to swell. This swelling can cause many health problems. Some of these can be mild, while others can be life-threatening.
Signs and symptoms of hyponatremia may include:
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of energy, drowsiness and fatigue
- anxiety and irritability
- muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
- seizures and coma (in severe cases)
What does too much sodium do to your body?
Too much sodium in the blood is called hypernatremia. It involves dehydration, which can have many causes, including not drinking enough fluids, diarrhea, kidney dysfunction, and diuretics. When sodium accumulates in the blood, water is transferred out of cells and into the blood to dilute it. This fluid shift and a build-up of fluid in the brain can cause seizures or coma.
Other symptoms can be:
- muscle weakness
- loss of appetite
- extreme thirst
Tips for reducing sodium intake
Eat more fruit and vegetables
These types of foods are naturally low in sodium and contain potassium and magnesium which may help reduce blood pressure.
Prepare your own food
Restaurant dishes tend to be very high in sodium. When you cook at home you have the opportunity to weigh the amount of salt that you want to add to your food.
Physical activities are associated with so many health benefits, including lower blood pressure. Aerobic or just walking can help bring your sodium levels down.
Replace salt with herbs, spices and other flavorings
Fresh or dried herbs, spices, zest, and juice from citrus fruit are always a good idea to jazz up your meals.
In case you’re wondering why salt is so tasty…
Sodium chloride works as an aroma enhancer. Salt improves the sensory properties of virtually every food that humans consume, accentuates the sweet taste, hides the metallic aromas or the flavor of chemicals, with the general effect of intensifying the flavors and improving them.
Sodium is an essential nutrient that your body needs for many important functions, but it can have harmful effects on your body if consumed excessively.
How much sodium does the body need? As I have already shown, specialists recommend a sodium intake of fewer than 2,300 mg per day (the equivalent of a teaspoon), which can be easily exceeded if processed foods such as bread, crisps, sausage rolls, pies, pastries, bacon, ham, cakes, or fast-food are frequently consumed.
Eating more fresh food, choosing low-sodium products, dining at home, or exercising can help you maintain the optimum levels of sodium.