Why America's Salt Addiction Will Be Hard to Kick
Americans love salt. And we eat too much of it. So much so that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is thinking about limiting the amount of sodium in packaged foods. But the American palate has become so accustomed to the high levels of sodium and salt added to our meals that the only way to kick the habit may be to wean ourselves off it slowly.
Americans love salt. And we eat too much of it. So much so that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is thinking about limiting the amount of sodium in packaged foods.
Cutting back on sodium would almost certainly be good for the country's health. The average American consumes nearly 50% more sodium than experts recommend, most of it from processed foods. Though it adds flavor and helps preserve food, all that sodium can cause high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other health problems. (Sodium is a component of table salt, but they're not the same thing.)
But can we handle a blast of bland? Apparently not. If the FDA and the food industry do reduce the sodium in our food, it will happen gradually, because our taste buds simply can't handle a crash course in low-sodium fare.
The fact is, experts say, the American palate has become so accustomed to the high levels of sodium and salt added to our meals that the only way to kick the habit may be to wean ourselves off it slowly.
"When we stop [using salt] abruptly, there's a dramatic difference in the taste of the food," says Jeannie Gazzaniga Moloo, PhD, a registered dietitian. "For most people, taste is the most important reason why they eat something. If we were to lower sodium too abruptly, foods just wouldn't taste good. We wouldn't eat them."
How we got hooked on sodium
Along with sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (a Japanese word that roughly translates as "savory"), salt is one of the five basic tastes recognized by human taste buds. Just as some people have a sweet tooth and some don't, some people crave that salty taste more than others.
Experts are still trying to untangle the factors that influence an individual's appetite for saltiness. Some appear to be biological. Studies suggest, for instance, that babies whose mothers suffer from morning sickness tend to have above-average salt appetites, because vomiting depletes sodium levels in the body (and the fetus). Other studies have exploredinconclusivelywhether individual preferences may be related to stress, anxiety, or even personality traits.
Habit likely plays a much bigger role in salt preference, experts say. As with any dietary habit, if we get accustomed to saltier food, we need to maintain that level to continue to enjoy our meals and feel satisfied.
"We do develop a taste preference for salt," says Gazzaniga Moloo, who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It does have some properties that can make foods taste better. It can help neutralize foods' natural bitterness. That's oftentimes why sprinkling a little salt on vegetables for some people makes them taste better."