I have only recently become conscious of the extent of sodium in the foods we consume. I have never had a propensity to use salt on food, and thought that I could have no problem with excess sodium. Come to find out, I was wrong.

Salt that we add to food ourselves can be controlled quite easily. Don’t put a salt shaker on the table, don’t add salt to food as it’s being prepared, and stay away from known heavily salted foods, like potato chips and fast food french fries. But the problem is outside of our ability to handle by ourselves without a large amount of research, hunting for specific food brands, and other major modifications. This is due to the fact that nearly 80 percent of the salt in a typical American diet is put there by the manufacturers, not by us. About 12% of the sodium we consume comes from foods. Another 5% is added during cooking, while about 6% is added at the table.

When I became sodium conscious a few months ago, we found out that the fat-free canned chili we had been eating for years, considering it a healthy alternative when our taste ran to chili, contains 2100 mg. of sodium per serving. The FDA daily recommended maximum allowance is less than 2,300 mg per day (about 1 tsp of table salt). The guidelines further recommend that blacks, persons with high blood pressure, and middle-aged and older adults consume no more than 1,500 mg per day (about 2/3 tsp of table salt). These specific populations account for about 70% of adults. The average daily sodium intake for Americans age 2 years and older is 3,436 mg. The maintenance level for human life and proper bodily function is about 185 mg per day.

Further investigation disclosed that even so-called “low sodium” soups,canned under such sobriquets as “healthy choice”, “healthy request”, and other nice sounding names, contain between 480 and 900 mg. of sodium per serving.

Why is this such a bad thing? It’s a known medical fact that an excess of sodium is linked to high blood pressure and consequently to stroke, the fourth leading cause of death and a major cause of disability in the US. Estimates vary, but some persuasively contend that excess sodium is the indirect cause of 150,000 premature deaths a year.

In addition to the examples I gave above, salt is not necessarily where you expect it. Many popular breakfast cereals are more concentrated in sodium than you want your diet to be on average. If your breakfast cereal pulls your average salt intake up above guidelines, what are you going to eat to pull it down? The simple fact is that most of us exceed the guidelines every single day.

This is made worse by the fact that many of us eat in restaurants on a regular basis, and they often exceed reasonable sodium levels even more egregiously than we see in the processed foods we prepare and eat at home. It has been found in a government study that some restaurant chains serve meals that contain enough sodium for four and a half days. Such meals are, quite simply, killing thousands of Americans every year, and adding to the strained healthcare budgets of which we are all aware.

Not to single out these restaurants as the worst offenders, but to show a representative example of what the above study found. Red Lobsters Admiral’s Feast contains 7,106 mg of sodium. Chili’s Buffalo Chicken Fajitas has 6,916 mg. Olive Garden lasagna with a breadstick, garden fresh salad with house dressing has 6,176 mg.

Most of us eat at fast food restaurants more than other types of eating establishments. We all know pretty well by now that fast food is not healthy food, and like most people, my concerns were always with the high amount of fats found in such fare. Just to open your eyes to the sodium question, here are some quick examples.

A McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger will give you 1140 mg of sodium, and if you add a medium order of fries, you put another 330 mg of sodium into your system. You would then be more than half way to the RDA.

You eat at Burger King instead of McDonald’s? That Whopper holds 1020 mg of sodium and an order of fries adds another 530, if you get them unsalted. You can have salt for another 140 mg. Maybe you’d rather have the BK Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich. That would pack 1640 mg of sodium into your body. The fries would put you over 2000, and you’re staring at the RDA if you eat nothing else all day.

Is Wendy’s better? Not so much. A Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger has 890 mg of sodium, but the Grilled Chicken Sandwich only has 740 mg. But if you have a salad with that, be aware that without dressing it only has 20 mg, but add Creamy Ranch dressing and the count jumps another 630 mg. Blue cheese dressing will hit you with 890 mg of sodium. But you can get a sour cream and chive baked potato for only 40 mg. The same potato with bacon and cheddar comes in at 870 mg.

Industry averages in a generic choice of restaurants will find the following statistics pretty common for these foods. A Reuben sandwich will typically top 3000 mg, while shrimp and rice with garlic sauce will come in just under 3000 mg. A serving of buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing will have around 2400 mg, the RDA in one meal. The average restaurant serving of spaghetti with meat sauce will also cost you the RDA on one plate, as will beef and cheese nachos. Four cheese sticks along with a cup of buffalo sauce will give you 2,920 mg. How’s that for an appetizer?

Much of our everyday grocery store staples are surprising as well. Rice flake or wheat flake cereals contain around 1000 mg per serving, while puffed rice or wheat cereals contain around 4 mg. Why such a difference? No one has a good answer that I could find.

Cheddar cheese has 620 mg per ounce, while Swiss cheese only has 260 mg. That parmesan that you sprinkle on your pasta? Each ounce will cost you 1862 mg of sodium.

One cup of fresh cooked garden peas has 2 mg of sodium, while the same vegetable from the typical can will have 236 mg.

A single dill pickle can contain as much as 1428 mg of sodium, while a sweet pickle is less than 300 mg. Of course, a fresh garden cucumber contains around 2 mg.

A four ounce pork chop will contain 65 mg of sodium while four ounces of cured ham will hit you with 930 mg.

Baked or boiled potatoes have between 2 and 6 mg of sodium each, while the same potato mashed and salted will give you around 300 mg. But then one ounce of potato chips is over 1000 mg.

Fresh baked salmon has 64 mg of sodium, whereas the same amount of salmon from a can will have 387 mg.

While pork sausage has 958 mg of sodium, the normal pork frankfurter has 1100, and a slice of bologna has 1300 mg.

The list can on and on, but I think you can see a pattern here. The less processed a food is, the less sodium it will ordinarily contain. Human beings have chosen through long and complicated evolution what foods they like and how they like them. Eons ago, the choice was made to pickle a cucumber in brine, and that healthy, tasty, cuke became a sodium loaded pickle. Of course this allowed the storage and consumption of cucumbers all year long rather than in the short growing season.

The same can be said of smoked and salted meats, and such fare as sauerkraut with its 750 mg of sodium, whereas fresh cabbage with its negligible sodium content would not make it through the winter until the next year’s crop.

So are today’s food really worse than those our ancestors chose to pickle, salt, and smoke for preservation? For the most part, I think the answer is yes. Since 1970, the average can of soup, for instance, has went from a sodium level of 280 mg per serving to over 800 mg. Pasta sauce has increased from around 200 mg to 650 mg. Even simple things like canned green beans have soared from an average then of 125 mg, to today’s average of 350 mg.

The amount of sodium per serving has increased at the same time as our average per person consumption has soared, adding an even worse specter to the appalling facts. Since 1970 we have grown more obese, increased our consumption of fats, sodium, and all manner of preservatives, additives, and extraneous antibiotics and growth hormones. We have become a progressively sicker society, and one which will see our children and grandchildren have decreased life expectancy to that of our generation’s. The first time in recorded history to witness this sort of decrease in longevity. And it’s almost all due to what we eat.

Americans spend north of $15 billion to treat high blood pressure, and many billions more on expensive heart procedures, yet the government spends peanuts improving Americans’ diets. Getting the food and restaurant industries to use less salt would be one way we could help prevent chronic disease and make health coverage more affordable.

Reducing sodium consumption by just 25 percent over the next 10 years could save the government $9 billion a year in direct medical costs.

Our love affair with dietary salt can probably be traced back to the very first creatures that dragged themselves out of the briny shallows onto dry land. Going terrestrial meant giving up a constant supply of sodium, and suddenly made the mineral a prized commodity. Deer will come to a salt lick with good reason. Sodium in nature is hard to find for creatures not swimming in it.

The native, Stone Age human diet provided roughly 10 times as much potassium as sodium (we actually get more sodium than potassium in the typical, modern diet). Yet, sodium is essential. So those of our ancestors who craved it, and thus were motivated to get enough of it, did a better job of passing on their genes. After all, those who don’t survive to pass on genes make for very poor ancestors.

Those of us around today inherited genes from salt-loving forefathers and foremothers. But in a world of limited sodium, their salt-cravings fostered their survival and procreation; in a world of French fries, Cheerios, and Bugles, our inherited salt craving fosters hypertension, stroke and osteoporosis.

Taste buds are very malleable little fellas: when they can’t be with the foods they love, they learn to love the foods they’re with. Familiarity is one of the more potent drivers of dietary preference.

The food industry case is that they are simply providing us the salt levels we prefer, and to some extent this is true. But we have learned to prefer such copious additions of salt to our diets because our taste buds are bathing in sodium excess all day long.

It works just as well in the other direction: if the feds help dial down our exposure to sodium, we will get more sensitive to sodium, and prefer less. My taste buds are beneficiaries of a very pure, ‘practice of what I preach’ diet.

There are health advocacy groups putting pressure on the government to put some controls on the manufactured food and restaurant industries to reduce the amount of salt in the foods they sell to us. I am in total accord with this effort. I only lament that they do not go far enough in what they are asking the government to do on our behalf. I can, however, imagine one vociferous protest to my position: isn’t this just one more example of ‘Big Brother’ telling us what to do? The answer comes down to your preferences for salt, siblings and shelf life.

You see, salt content in processed foods has gone up for a number of reasons. Some research shows that the human appetite center is activated by combining multiple flavors at a time; I suspect that is at least part of the reason sweet cereals and desserts contain as much sodium as they do.

Your preference for salt levels that are irrefutably at odds with your health, and the health of your children- is a by-product of native traits and tendencies from the Stone Age, clashing with modern food industry practices. I doubt you ‘want’ salty breakfast cereal, or cookies, but the industry is giving them to you, and manipulating your taste buds in the process. So, you are currently being bossed around, not by Capital Hill, but by Madison Avenue. Is that really better?

In addition, and more obviously, salt extends shelf life. The longer foods go without spoiling, the less waste there is for the food company, and the higher the profits. But here’s the rub: by and large, the longer the shelf life of the foods people eat, the shorter the shelf life of the people eating the foods. So, it seems, the government should want to prioritize the shelf life of people over products, and arguably, any resistant elements in the food industry would rather go the other way. You can decide which of these platforms you prefer, but I’ve made my choice, and it seems a no-brainer to me!

Since it is much easier to add salt to food than to take it out after someone else has added it, it seems to me that some regulation would put more control where the salt shaker is — in your hands. Big Brother has expressed no desire to take that shaker away. You can always add salt whenever you want. I doubt it will be when you are eating cookies, but you’re the boss. Isn’t that how it should be?

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