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A dash of salt

(article, Caroline Cummins)

"Salt," writes Mark Kurlansky in his book of the same name, "is a necessary component in the functioning of cells. Without both water and salt, cells could not get nourishment and would die of dehydration."

Salt, in other words, is as essential as water. But we need far less of it than water — no more than a teaspoon a day, or 2,300 milligrams. Too many of us eat far too much of it, usually in the form of processed foods. (A serving of Campbell's Select Chicken with Egg Noodles soup, for example, contains 990 milligrams of sodium — and it doesn't even taste particularly salty.) High blood pressure, it's long been known, can be worsened by eating too much sodium — and improved by eating less of it. Now there's a study showing a possible connection between salt and other cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks and stroke.

[%image feed-image float=right width=250 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/grapegeek" caption="Put that salt shaker away."]

The study, which appeared in the April 2007 issue of the British Medical Journal, found that a reduced-sodium diet, followed over a period of several years, could lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as a third. The researchers also found that, with time, people on a lower-salt diet became accustomed to eating less salt; the September/October 2007 issue of Eating Well magazine quotes one of the study's authors, Nancy Cook, as saying, "Many of the people in our study reported that they had grown to prefer low-sodium alternatives."

Salt, of course — as former Front Burner columnist Helen Rennie has pointed out — is vital for making food taste good. But more isn't always better. "Throw away your salt shaker," Rennie writes. "Salt shakers don’t give you the fine control you get from your hands. Keep a small bowl of salt on your counter and use your hands to pinch salt and sprinkle it on your food when cooking."

Most foods, she adds, taste best when salt is added at the end of cooking: liquids, vegetables, salads. (Meats and baked goods are the main exceptions to this rule.) Instead of dumping too much salt into a dish, add it at the very end to taste. Chances are, you'll use far less of it for the same intensity of flavor.

But Rennie's rules apply only to foods made from scratch. As Francesco P. Cappuccio, a professor at Warwick Medical School in Britain, pointed out in an editorial in the British Medical Journal,_

bq. In Westernized countries, people derive salt mostly from bread and processed food and only a small proportion comes from discretionary use (up to 20 percent). A population-wide policy of salt reduction in developed countries can only be implemented with the collaboration of the food industry. Over the years, however, the need to sustain a profitable market has led to opposition from the food industry or slow progress.

In other words, forego that can of Campbell's, or that loaf of commercially processed bread. Salt is cheap and easy for the food industry to load into products — and cheap and easy for you to use, sparingly, on your own. Want to lower your blood pressure and maybe stave off that heart attack? Buy whole foods, cook them yourselves, and enjoy that delicious salt you sprinkle on yourself.

Also on Culinate: A review of a book about the history of salt.

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