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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 02/18/2011

Salty talk: Readers respond to my week of low sodium

By Tim Carman
photo(25)_opt.jpg Nicholas Stefanelli's salt-less tuna carpaccio at Bibiana. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The response to my week in low-sodium eating, the Great Shakedown, followed a predictable pattern. Some readers argued that adhering to the government's recommended sodium limit for millions of at-risk Americans (1,500 milligrams a day) is far easier than I depicted. Others said I was right on. Still others wanted to prove what kind of tool I am.

Here's a sampling of e-mail comments, separate from the 87 found online.

One particular sodium geek wrote in:

your calculations are off....salt is 39.337% sodium. Therefore, there are 393mg of sodium per gram of salt. A teaspoon of normal salt is approximately 9gm which is 3540mg of sodium....your halves, quarters, etc were all underestimated in your article. I realize there is a difference in the type of salt crystals due to shape, size, etc, but that is only a rule of thumb....If you want to be diligent, you should weigh a tsp of the salt you use in your cooking and then you know exactly what you are putting in. Personally, I cook with NO SALT and I try to keep my daily intake under tastes great when you put in garlic, ginger, chilies, bay, rosemary, pepper, etc....

A District resident scolded:

However, to say that it is “the Government” that wants us to reduce our sodium consumption is incomplete. There is good evidence that at least for some of us reducing sodium consumption does reduce and or delay the development of high blood pressure. You might have said “the Public Health” community advocates that the public reduce consumption of sodium. It is almost impossible to do so if many meals are eaten out of home. Chefs taste salt all day and require a high level of salt to get the salty taste. The bulk of the public also used to high levels of salt tends to require high levels of salt to satisfy the desire for a salty taste. Those of us who cook at home with low salt levels find restaurant food typically too salty and as a consequence eat out less than we otherwise would. Until Chefs are given the incentive to prepare tasty food with low salt, restaurant meals will continue to be mostly off limits for those of us, and this includes many affluent individuals, whose health suggests limiting salt consumption.

Hope for low-sodium adherents, a reader said, can be found at TJ's:

It is so terribly hard to find food which fits into the 1500 mg daily restriction. We have to give up a lot of foods that sound ordinary to most people: cheese, lunch meat, most processed foods, pickles, salad dressing etc. and cut down on spinach, celery, etc. Even regular bread. Thank goodness for Trader Joe's low sodium products.

One reader, in Buddha-like language, believed suffering was key to salt reduction:

That was a very nice piece -- an interesting way to go about it. I would like to politely suggest that the method you chose is doomed to fail for the vast majority of people, however. Like all things in life, if you want to achieve something here, in terms of seriously reducing salt intake, I believe you must suffer much more upfront in order to reap the eventual benefits in the longer run.
One becomes habituated to salt to the point where when it's not there one experiences food as bland. One also fails to experience more subtle flavors as satisfying. There is only one way to get over this that I know of, and that is to cut out ALL added salt (which means no processed food, either and no restaurants) for about 3 weeks. You will suffer a great deal. But after three or so weeks your perception of taste will change dramatically. You will taste much more...
Table salt slide_opt.jpg Sources of sodium. (Salt Institute)

Morton Satin, vice president of science and research for the Salt Institute, wrote to take exception to the idea of salt acclimation:

The broad statement made in the Dietary Guidelines (taken from the recent Institute of Medicine report on “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake”) that people can become acclimatized to the low salt intakes was based on a small number of studies done in the ‘80s and ‘90s on small test groups. The largest study referred to was Elmer, P. J. 1988, “The effect of dietary sodium reduction and potassium chloride supplementation on sodium chloride taste perceptions in mild hypertensives: University of Minnesota. However, as noted in the IOM report, this PhD dissertation remains unpublished to this day, so I have no way of checking it out. That is the base of evidence upon which their assurance that we can become acclimatized to lower salt levels rests. Alternatively, I attach a slide from a presentation I attended while I was in London last week. It shows that while the level of salt in processed foods has been reduced during the last year, the consumption of table salt has risen dramatically (so we can now expect an epidemic of tennis elbow to go along with the obesity epidemic). In fact, the Kantar WorldPanel reported an overall table salt volume increase in the UK of 26.5%. So, if the data on actual sales of table salt is to be taken seriously, then the notion of our ability to become acclimatized to lower salt levels is very much open to question.

This reader provided some much-needed perspective on salt deprivation:

I have been on a low salt diet for years. I can't stand salty food now, so you can get used to the real flavors of food eventually. The cruelest thing that has ever happened though is finding that I am gluten intolerant. If I eat anything made from wheat my arthritis lights up. Try eating non-gluten for a week, then you will see what true deprivation is like.

A Georgetown resident suggested:

Most good chefs are proud of their food and are very willing to work with their customers to reduce salt (and fat) in their dishes. Of course, as you discovered, sometimes they do not realize that even that l-i-t-t-l-e smidgen of salt that they sneak in will make a difference. I am always careful to go out at off peak times, especially very early weekend dinners, when the kitchen is not overwhelmed and the head chef is able to talk so that I can explain the limitations. I am always hopeful that my situation will get them to rethink their menu offerings to at least provide low salt options.

A webmaster wrote to say, more or less, that salt should be classified as a drug:

While salt is not officially addictive, it really is. No wonder after 1 week you still craved it. Try going without cocaine after using it regularly and you'll find it hard to quit also. It take at least a month to get the salt craving out of your system. Unfortunately, most people needing low salt diets are hypertensive and there is no physical feedback of salt levels. At least people with Meniere's disease get some feed back if their salt diet drafts too high.

A high-blood pressure patient offered hope:

I have high blood pressure and have been on medication for several years. Happily with the combination of the drug and a complete change in eating habits, my bp is good. Although I never used a salt shaker, my intake of sodium via the food I ate was a complete shocker to me and thus my interest in your article. High blood pressure is a silent killer in this country and too much sodium is a major contributor to high bp. Once I started reading labels re the amount of sodium, I don't understand why all companies and restaurants haven't been challenged to come up with ways to make their products taste good without all that sodium.

Another reader wanted more from the Food section on the subject of salt:

Thanks for the interesting article. In writing your article, I am wondering if you explored whether Tripani salt, Celtic salt or other gourmet varieties vary in concentration and negative impact of sodium chloride on the body? I have heard people argue that if you use the very expensive Celtic Salt, for example ($9+ for just a few oz.) that is has less negative (or no) impact on the body re blood pressure etc. Are there any studies out there? If not, could the Post to do such an article so that the confusion can be cleared up? Or perhaps you already know the answer?

A "fellow salt-free seeker" wrote:

Just read your piece on salt and I have a tip for you. Pennzeys Spices, longtime mail order spice merchant, has a store on Rockville Pike approximately across the road from the entrance to the Woodmont Country Club. They stock an assortment of salt free blends and they are delicious. I haven't tried all because I find that Sunny Paris goes on eggs, salads, vegetables, meats, poultry--haven't tried fish. Also there are Sunny Spain, Florida Seasoned Pepper, Arizona Dreaming (Mexican) and so forth. Allow time, because it is a fun place to browse. Hope this helps...

By Tim Carman  | February 18, 2011; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs, Food Politics, Media  | Tags:  Tim Carman  
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Next: Festival puts the focus on complex barley wines


Yes most of the brands do give out samples of their products. Look for "123 Get Samples" online and get the samples. They are the best. You wont need CC.

Posted by: deniserollins123 | February 19, 2011 2:39 AM | Report abuse

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