Salt. It's more than a flavoring. We've used it to preserve food -- think bacon and ham -- and reduce decomposition of human bodies when burial wasn't immediate. We use it as a binder in processed food and we sprinkled it on open wounds to kill bacteria. It was a medium of exchange before money was invented. We need it, and so does the Earth; there is the same concentration of salt in our blood as in ocean water.
These days, however, we simply have too much of a good thing. In some cases, a potentially deadly amount. The average American consumes almost double the amount of salt he actually needs to be healthy. When we eat more than our kidneys can flush, it builds up in our blood, attracting water and increasing blood volume, causing hypertension or high blood pressure. Black Americans, the elderly and people with diabetes are particularly sensitive to the effect of too much salt on blood pressure.
But, according to a new study by the Institute of Medicine, everyone can benefit from a diet with less salt. And, since about 80 percent of Americans' salt intake comes from processed food, the institute wants the federal government to regulate the amount of salt in commercially produced food and reduce it gradually, so we salt lovers won't have to go cold turkey on our sodium habit.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants the food industry to make the change voluntarily, weaning us off the taste of too much salt and, in turn, lowering our chances of strokes, heart disease and other ailments associated with hypertension and made worse or more likely by shaking on the sodium. The FDA is confident it can work with food companies and achieve the reduction without mandatory restrictions.
We are less optimistic. We say give the industry a deadline. If the sodium content in crackers, cereal, processed meat, soups, condiments and the rest isn't reduced to something like 100 milligrams per serving in the prescribed time frame, the government should adopt stringent limitations.
In the meantime, Americans should consider doing their own due diligence, checking food labels for sodium content and avoiding products that inflict heavy doses. There seems to be disagreement among agencies and studies about what the optimum amount of sodium is for the average person. That doesn't help us discipline ourselves. Consistent labeling, noting not only the milligrams of sodium the food contains, but the percentage of a recommended daily sodium it provides, should be adopted.
It's a matter of life and death.