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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Dissolving the Mysteries of Salt


October 23, 2014

 


By Rebecca Lynch, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Salt is a mineral that contains sodium. The body needs a small amount of sodium to work properly. But too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is bad for the heart, brain and kidneys.

Americans, on average, eat 4,000 to 5,000 milligrams daily. Most health organizations recommend consuming less than 2,400 milligrams daily.

Types of Salt

Salt enhances the flavor of food. The variety of salt products you can buy goes well beyond traditional table salt. Here are some of the different types of salt and their properties.

Type of salt

Milligrams (mg) of sodium in 1 tsp

Ingredients

Shape/texture

Table
2,325 mg
Refined salt, no minerals
Small cubic crystals
Sea
1,872 mg
Less refined, contains minerals
Large crystals, coarse texture
Salt Sense
1,560 mg
Refined salt, no minerals
Large, light, flake-shaped crystals
Seasoned
1,520 mg
Salt mixed with seasoning
Table salt/seasoning texture
Kosher
1,120 mg
Refined salt, no minerals
Flat, platelet shape crystals
Salt substitute
0 mg
Potassium chloride salts
Similar to table salt

The important difference between the various types of salt is their sodium content. When measured out by the teaspoon, large, coarse salts have less sodium than table salt; however, when measured out by weight, all salts containing sodium have the same sodium content.

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Reading Labels

Pay attention to the serving size and the sodium content per serving on food labels. Sodium content is provided in milligrams (mg).

  • Choose foods that have less than 400 mg per serving.
  • Choose snacks that have less than 140 mg per serving.
  • Prepared frozen meals should have less than 700 mg per serving.
  • Products marked as "low sodium" must contain less than 140 mg per serving.
  • Other products may claim to have 25-50% less sodium than usual.
  • Some "reduced sodium" foods may still contain unhealthy amounts of sodium.

Watch out for these high sodium seasonings:

  • Soy sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Garlic salt
  • Onion salt
  • Celery salt
  • Tabasco sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Bouillon

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Salt Substitutes

For some people, salt substitutes or "low sodium" foods may contain potassium salts that can cause serious health problems like irregular heart beats. Ask your doctor or your dietitian if you need to limit your potassium intake.

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Salt-Free Alternatives

Try flavoring meat, fish and poultry with herbs and spices like oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, curry or dill. For vegetables, try fresh squeezed lemon juice, basil, oregano or rosemary. Fruit tastes great with a little ginger or cinnamon spice. Look for blends of spices without the salt to add flavor to any dish.

The keys to following a low-sodium, heart-healthy diet include:

  • Choosing fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Avoiding prepackaged meals
  • Limiting salty snacks
  • Avoiding high sodium luncheon meats
  • Using fresh herbs and spices for flavoring
  • Looking for low sodium alternatives of your favorite foods
  • Avoiding sauces and gravies when eating out
  • Asking for food to be prepared without salt

And, finally: Get rid of the salt shaker!

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Rebecca Lynch, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is a clinical dietician at Brigham and Women's Hospital

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