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Salt debate got you shaking? Here’s a 101

'Low-sodium' this, 'no-salt' that. It’s enough to confuse any shopper. "Today" food editor Phil Lempert sorts it out for you.

Salt has received a bad rap in recent years. And rightly so — it has been linked to everything from rising blood-pressure levels to cancer.

Like many things in life, though — think about alcohol, sugar and high-carb foods such as bread and pasta — it has got a bad reputation through over-consumption.

In fact, salt, like water, is an absolute essential to health in all human beings (and animals, too). Without enough salt, we can suffer deep fatigue, dehydration, hyperthyroidism and even death. But as a result of concerns about too much salt in our diets most shoppers are confused when it comes to understanding the role of salt and just how much we should be consuming.

Salt, both natural and common salt, is a preservative and flavor-enhancer in foods. Common salt, often devoid of many minerals, is the one most often used liberally in packaged products, sometimes in excess of recommended daily allowances (RDA) set by nutritionists. As a result, most Americans are vulnerable to problems of excess table salt: edema (water retention), hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease and strokes.

Natural salts, if used in excess, will bring on many of the same problems. However, they contain a great deal of minerals that help regulate the water in our bodies and contribute to the proper elimination of fluids through our kidneys.

A no-salt diet — which would be very difficult to achieve — would result in serious medical problems. Salt is important in breaking down plant carbohydrates into useable energy in the body, it activates saliva and gastric secretions which aid digestion, and even helps to sanitize our colon. It’s also one of the main electrolytes found in the blood.

The right amount of salt intake — and the correct balance between its two main ingredients, sodium and chloride — is essential to our health.  According the Institutes of Medicine, healthy 19- to 50-year-old adults should consume 1,500 milligrams of sodium and 2,300 milligrams of chloride each day — or a total of 3,800 milligrams of salt — to replace the amount lost daily on average through sweat and other excretive processes.

However, the Institutes of Medicine also reports that 95 percent of American men and 75 percent of American women regularly consume too much salt.  In fact, it is estimated that the average intake is 4,000 to 5,000 milligrams a day

There has been much debate over whether or not salt should be restricted. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., has determined that the recommended safe minimum daily amount is about 500 milligrams of sodium with an upper limit of 2,400 milligrams.

Correct consumption levels are also determined in part by lifestyle and medical factors. Athletes, for instance, are part of the smaller percentage that is at risk of not consuming enough salt. Hyponatremia is a low concentration of sodium in the blood, and can occur from increased activity and excessive sweating.  Expectant mothers too should be careful as to make sure they are getting enough salt, particularly if they are experiencing excessive swelling and increased blood pressure. Increased levels of sodium have also been known to combat chronic fatigue syndrome.

The plain truth, though, is that most people consume too much salt. And the risks cannot be minimized.  Medical studies have linked high consumption of salt with increased blood pressure or hypertension, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.  Other studies, although highly debated, have led some scientists to believe that eating high levels of salt may cause the stomach lining to waste away. This condition, known as atrophic gastritis, can lead to stomach cancer.

For those interested reducing their salt intake, a good place to start is by reading labels on all packaged foods. Processed foods can be loaded with sodium or other forms of sodium such as sodium benzoate, sodium citrate, sodium nitrite or monosodium glutamate. Look on the label for the “percent daily value for sodium” and try to choose foods that are under 5 percent.  Foods that are typically high in sodium include: canned vegetables, canned soups, frozen dinners, packaged convenience foods, sauces and condiments (such as ketchup, prepared mustard, soy sauce, steak or barbecue sauce, chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce) pickles and olives. Other product categories that also may have high levels of sodium depending on the brand are:  cheeses, salted nuts, peanut butter, crackers, chips, pretzels and popcorn.

Sodium levels are also very high in some fast food offerings, so be sure you as for the nutritional information on your favorite fast food (or check it out on the restaurant’s website) before you order.  For example, at McDonald’s a Big Mac contains 1050 milligrams of sodium, which may not be a surprise to anyone; but did you know that their Chicken McGrill sandwich contains 1020 milligrams or that their Grilled California Cobb Salad contains 1060 (even more than the Big Mac!).

Varieties of salt

Unrefined sea salt is 98 percent sodium chloride, with the other two percent consisting of up to 80 essential and accessory minerals.

Refined salt is higher in sodium chloride (99.9%). It is also likely to contain aluminum silicate to stabilize and prevent caking. Bleaching agents may be use to both table or sea salts.

Common salts

  • Traditional table salt flows freely, is snowy white and has a strong bite.
  • Same as above but with iodine added as a nutritional supplement. (This is a holdover from health programs introduced in the early 20th century.)

  • These large crystals are frequently used in brining and koshering of meat products; helps to break down fibers of the meat. They do not contain iodine.

Sea salts

  • French sea salts, available in both filtered (white) and unfiltered (gray) selections, and in small and large crystals. Adds a distinct definition to foods; use sparingly.
  • A sea salt made with the least amount of processing to preserve the mineral content; is gray, moist, and has large chunks. A little goes a long way in cooking.

  • Very refined crystals from sea salt that give a subtle but piquant taste to foods. Use lightly.

  • These good-sized crystals add a nice bite atop any savory recipe where you want a little tang. Use sparingly.

Storage tips
Store in a tightly wrapped canister or in its own package in a cool dark place. Some sea salts have natural moisture in them and should not be exposed to air or additional moisture.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. You can also visit his website at