Formula Medical Group
Apple Valley, CA

James Krider, MD

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Salt - sodium chloride

What is salt?

Sodium is a mineral found in almost all the plants and animals humans eat. The most familiar source of sodium, however, is the compound sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt.

Salt is about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. Thus, a teaspoon of salt contains 2.3 grams of sodium. Besides the salt added to food, most people consume large quantities of "hidden" sodium, which is present in almost all prepared foods in the form of MSG (monosodium glutamate), baking powder, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), brine, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, sodium benzoate, sodium hydroxide, sodium propionate, or sodium sulfite. Sodium is also in many medications, including such diverse drugs as antacids, painkillers, laxatives, and sleeping pills.

Why is salt important to nutrition?

Sodium is an important mineral in the body. It helps to regulate water, to balance acids in blood and urine, and to promote the absorption of nutrients across cell membranes. It also is instrumental in muscle contractions and proper functioning of the nervous system.

Good sources of salt

The following naturally salty foods contain enough sodium to meet normal needs:

  • Vegetables such as beets, beet greens, spinach, lima beans, Swiss chard, and celery.
  • Most dry cereals and breads.
  • Milk and most milk products, including cheeses and yogurt.
  • Eggs.

In addition, most processed foods contain large amounts of sodium. Particularly high sources include:

  • Processed meats (bacon, ham, or luncheon meats).
  • Baked goods,
  • Canned vegetables and soups.
  • Flavorings such as soy sauce, mustard, catsup, bouillon cubes, garlic or onion salts, and Worcestershire, steak, and barbecue sauces.
  • Pickles, sauerkraut, relish, and other pickled foods.
  • Club soda and many soft drinks.
  • Candies, especially those made with salted nuts.
  • Snack foods, especially chips, crackers, and salted nuts.
  • Salad dressings.

Ordinary table salt is 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride.

Ordinary table salt is 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride.

How much salt do I need?

Very little salt is needed for the body to function properly. The body requires only about 220 milligrams of sodium a day — the amount in one-tenth of a teaspoon of salt. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council recommends that adults consume no more than 2.4 grams of sodium a day and that children consume much less. In fact, however, the average American takes in the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of salt a day, which is considerably more than the recommended amount.

What happens if I don't get enough salt?
Excessive sweating, severe burns, or prolonged diarrhea and vomiting can deplete sodium levels, as can the overuse of diuretics. Sodium depletion can cause severe fluid loss, marked by symptoms such as muscle weakness, cramps, nausea, and cardiac irregularities.

What happens if I get too much salt?
In most healthy people, the kidneys filter excess sodium out of the bloodstream and excrete it in the urine. However, some people (particularly those with hypertension, heart disorders, and kidney disease) do not readily excrete sodium from their bodies. Excess sodium (and the resulting increases in certain hormones and levels of fluid in the body) is believed to contribute significantly to the development of high blood pressure in many people with the disease.

People who have high blood pressure and other health problems related to excess salt need to go on a low-sodium diet. Such a diet alone often can reduce blood pressure to normal in people with mild hypertension.

African-Americans seem to have a genetic predisposition to conserve sodium, a trait that may account for the higher incidence of hypertension and strokes in this population group.

Many experts believe that the small proportion of African slaves who survived the grueling voyage from their homes did so because they carried this genetic trait, which allowed them to subsist despite restricted water and salt. Ironically, this same characteristic is a health liability for their descendants living in modern, industrialized countries where a high-sodium diet is the norm.

Furthermore, some evidence suggests that a high-sodium diet can lead to strokes even when it does not increase blood pressure. This has been demonstrated in animal studies and some researchers think it applies to humans as well.

Should I take salt supplements?
For most people, the answer is no. In rare instances, athletes who exercise heavily in hot weather need salt supplementation, as may people with certain physiological disorders.

Advice about salt

The American Heart Association and many other national health organizations urge Americans to avoid too much sodium. To reduce the sodium in the diet, follow these general guidelines:

  • Don't use salt in cooking. Instead, be creative with herbs and spices.
  • If food is seasoned with salt, add it only at the table, and then use it sparingly.
  • Read labels carefully to check the sodium content of prepared foods.
  • Limit the intake of salty condiments such as soy sauce, garlic salt, ketchup, and mustard.
  • Limit the intake of salty foods such as pretzels, potato chips, salted nuts, pickled foods, cured meats, and many cheeses.
  • Eat fresh vegetables or, when using frozen or canned products, select no-salt or low-salt varieties.
  • Choose low-salt snacks, such as air popped popcorn and salt-free nuts.
This article was last reviewed December 19, 2005 by Dr. James Krider.
Reproduced in part with permission of Home Health Handbook.


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