Salt 101: Why You Need It, How Much Is Too Much, and How to Cut Back

Medically Reviewed
types of salt
Salt plays a key role in helping your body function well, but most Americans eat too much.Getty Images

Life would be pretty bland without salt. Not only is this crystal one of the most universal ingredients in food, it also plays a key role in health — even if a lot of what you hear about salt is negative. Learn more about this mineral, its history, health benefits, and why so many people crave it, and you just may start enjoying salt more on every level.

What Is Salt and Where Does It Come From?

Salt, or sodium chloride, is a mineral of great importance to human health. Most of the salt people consume comes from evaporated seawater or is mined from deep within the earth, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

To some people, salt is nothing more than an ingredient in their favorite dishes. But salt doesn’t only add flavor to foods. The body needs some salt, and it plays an important role in preserving food, since bacteria can’t live in a high-salt environment, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. Plus, salting food such as meat and fish to preserve it draws water out, removing water as a source of nutrients for microbes and keeping it fresh for longer, according to the book?Salt in the Earth?(PDF).

Common Questions & Answers

Does salt have any health benefits?
Not getting enough salt in your diet has been linked to low blood pressure, thyroid problems, and dehydration. Salt is also necessary to maintain the right fluid balance in the body.
How much salt is too much?

According to the American Heart Association, you should keep sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, which you can get from a little less than a tablespoon of table salt. And no more than 1,500 mg a day is ideal for most adults.

What is the difference between sea salt and table salt?
Sea salt comes from the ocean or saltwater lakes, and is harvested from evaporated water. Table salt is usually mined and contains more additives, such as iodine. Both kinds contain similar amounts of sodium.
Are sodium and salt the same?
No. Salt is made up of sodium and chloride, so salt contains sodium. When you eat salt or foods that contain salt, you consume sodium.
Why might you have a salty taste in your mouth?
Possible causes of a salty taste in the mouth include a dry mouth, dehydration, acid reflux, medication, postnasal drip, and a nutritional deficiency. Drink more water to see if it helps the taste go away. Contact your doctor if you have a change in taste.

What Are the Nutrition Facts for Salt?

You might use the terms sodium and salt interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. Sodium is one of the elements that makes up salt. Salt is a natural mineral composed of two elements: sodium and chloride. Salt is about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 1 teaspoon of table salt contains 2,330 mg of sodium and trace amounts or less of other nutrients.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans?(PDF) recommend 2,300 mg of sodium or less per day for adults. Americans exceed this, however, consuming an average of about 3,400 mg of sodium per day.

What Are the Different Types of Salt?

There are several different kinds of salt, each with slightly varying sodium levels and uses.

  • Iodized, or table salt is the most common type of salt, according to Mayo Clinic. It has smaller crystals, which give it a stronger flavor than other types of salt. Table salt may also contain anti-caking agents, such as calcium silicate, to prevent clumping.
  • Kosher salt comes in flakes or grains, and is named for its use in preparing kosher foods, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Kosher salt usually has bigger crystals, which results in it having less sodium by volume than table salt.
  • Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater, leaving behind the salt. It may also contain trace minerals, according to Mayo Clinic. Its sodium levels are comparable to table salt.
  • Specialty salts include Himalayan pink salt, red salt, black salt, smoked salt, and others. These salts may be harvested from certain geographic areas or have other ingredients added to them.

Health Benefits: Why We Need Salt in Our Diet — but Not Too Much

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the amount of salt in your diet, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. People age 14 and over should consume no more than 2,300 mg per day. But don’t avoid salt entirely, as this mineral plays an important role in how your body functions. You need at least 500 mg of sodium (a little less than ??teaspoon) per day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). If the sodium levels in your blood are too low — a condition called hypnoatremia — it could be dangerous. Here’s a look at why you need salt in your diet:

To Help Your Thyroid Function Properly

Your thyroid plays an important role in metabolism. But for your thyroid to work properly, your body needs the mineral iodine, which is found in many foods. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), iodine deficiency prevents your body from producing enough of the thyroid hormone. Symptoms of a deficiency include an enlarged thyroid, constipation, difficulty thinking, fatigue, and sensitivity to cold. Because iodine is also added to many salts (they are labeled “iodized”), having some iodized salt in your diet can help your thyroid function properly, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Processed foods and specialty salts typically do not contain iodine, according to the NIH.

To Stay Hydrated

Sodium also promotes healthy hydration levels and electrolyte balance, which is necessary for your body to function properly. Your cells, muscles, and tissues need water, and salt helps these parts of your body maintain the right amount of fluid, according to Mayo Clinic. A diet that is too low in sodium may increase the risk for dehydration.

To Improve Symptoms of Cystic Fibrosis

People living with cystic fibrosis lose more salt in their sweat than the average person. They need more water and salt in their diet to avoid dehydration, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. If you have this condition, consult your doctor to see how much salt you need daily based on your activity level.

What Are the Health Risks of Eating Too Much Salt?

Now that you know how salt can help you, here’s a look at how too much salt can hurt you:

Short-Term Effects

When you consume too much salt, you may see some effects relatively quickly.

Increased Water Retention

If you eat too much salt, your kidneys may not be able to filter excess sodium from your bloodstream. Sodium builds up in your system, and your body holds onto extra water in an attempt to dilute the sodium, according to research published in Nutrients in September 2019. This can cause water retention and bloating.

High Blood Pressure

Excessive salt can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure in some people, according to an?article published in September 2020 in Pediatric Nephrology.

Thirst

A meal that’s high in salt can leave you feeling thirsty later in the day, since your body wants to correct the imbalance between your water and sodium levels, reported the Pediatric Nephrology study.

Long-Term Effects

Eating a high-salt diet over a long period of time can put you at risk for certain health conditions.

Elevated Cardiovascular Health Risk

Excessive sodium consumption has been shown to increase blood pressure, which in turn raises the risk for heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The risk for heart disease is higher when a high-sodium diet is accompanied by a low-potassium diet, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. That’s because potassium helps excrete sodium from your body and help to relax blood vessels.

Higher Risk of Osteoporosis

The more salt you eat, the more calcium your body loses through urination. And unfortunately, if you don’t have enough calcium in your diet, the body will take it from your bones, increasing the risk for problems like osteoporosis, reports the Harvard School of Public Health.

Potential Increased Risk for Stomach Cancer

There’s also evidence suggesting that a high-salt diet increases the risk for stomach cancer, according to research published in March 2022?in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.

Why Do You Crave Salt?

Even if you know the importance of cutting back to reduce your sodium intake, this is easier said than done when you constantly crave a salty treat. It might come as a shock, but salt is addictive. High-sodium foods are associated with addictive-like behavior, according to research published in May 2021 Psychological Reports. So the more you eat salty foods, the more you may crave them. This can explain why it’s hard to just eat one chip.

Keep in mind that salt cravings can also be a sign of a medical problem. You could have an adrenal insufficiency caused by Addison’s disease, or a rare kidney problem called Bartter syndrome, according to Mayo Clinic. Consult your doctor if cravings persist or intensify.

Tips for Following a Low-Salt Diet

“It drives me crazy on food shows where they’re adding salt to dishes as if they’re feeding chickens on a farm,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table. Here are a few tips from Taub-Dix,?Mayo Clinic,?and the AHA to help you cut back and eat less salt:

  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.?Skip processed foods, like cured meats, canned goods, bagged items, and frozen foods, and spend more time in the produce aisle.
  • Avoid what the AHA?calls the "Salty Six."?Breads and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soup, and burritos and tacos should all be avoided, per the?AHA.
  • Read labels.?“You really do have to read food labels,” Taub-Dix says. “They are such a critical source of information to tell us where salt and sodium are coming from.” Don’t purchase canned goods or processed items with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. Bear in mind that a product labeled “no salt” may have other ingredients that contain sodium.
  • Pay attention to serving sizes.?“A label on a muffin may say it contains 400 mg of sodium, but the serving size might be half a muffin,” Taub-Dix says.
  • Cook without salt.?Experiment with herbs and spices for flavoring, such as oregano, garlic, thyme, chili powder, rosemary, and any other seasoning in your cupboard. “Fill your salt shaker with seasonings, so you can add a lot of flavor without having that sodium,” Taub-Dix says. If you do use salt, taste your food first, she added. Also, avoid adding salt at the table.
  • Prepare your own food.?Restaurant items contain higher amounts of sodium to keep the food fresh and add flavor. “Salt is one of the cheapest ingredients added to food, and it gives a tremendous amount of flavor,” Taub-Dix says. Cook your own food to control the sodium. Before eating out, check a restaurant’s nutritional menu online to find low-sodium selections.
  • Rinse canned beans.?“You can remove a lot of the sodium and still get the benefits of the plant protein and fiber,” Taub-Dix says.
  • Be mindful of natural sources of sodium.?Meat, dairy products, bread, and shellfish all contain sodium, so be sure to regulate your intake of these foods if you’re watching your salt intake. “Breads, pastries, and baked goods are among the richest sources of sodium,” Taub-Dix says.

Smart Ways to Add Salt Into Your Home-Cooked Dishes

Taub-Dix shared a few helpful tips when cooking with salt:

  • Some sauces contain a high amount of sodium. Don’t immediately add extra salt during cooking. Allow the sauce to simmer first. Taste the food after the dish finishes cooking, and then add extra salt if necessary. The saltiness of food can change as it cooks.
  • Salt food at a distance of about 10 to 12 inches so you’re able to see the amount you’re adding more clearly.
  • Canned seafood or meat could contain more sodium than fresh versions. Be sure to read the labels.

Healthy Food Choices When You’re Craving Salt

In the mood for something salty? There’s nothing wrong with satisfying the occasional craving. Just make sure you choose snacks that are healthier or contain less salt, and limit the portion size of healthy foods that are higher in salt. For example, Taub-Dix suggests:

  • Popcorn with no salt or butter
  • Hummus and carrots (or another vegetable)
  • Edamame without added salt
  • Unsalted peanuts, cashews, or almonds
  • Apples and unsalted peanut butter or any nut butter
  • Olives or pickles (just be mindful of the portion size, as these are salt-laden)
  • Vegetable chips such as kale chips (but always check the label of any packaged food for the sodium content as it can vary greatly)

Other Surprising Uses for Salt

Salt can add flavor to dishes and preserve food, but outside of the kitchen, what else can it do? Here are just a few tips from the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection:

  • Scour surfaces.?Mix table salt with soap and scrub with a stiff brush.
  • Remove wine and fruit stains.?Pour salt on the stain and soak in milk before washing.
  • Remove blood stains.?Pour salt on the stain and soak in cold water before washing.
  • Remove coffee and tea stains from mugs and china.?Clean them with a mixture of equal parts salt and white vinegar.
  • Clean brass and copper.?Use a blend of ? cup flour, ? cup white vinegar, and ? cup salt. Spread on the tarnished area and let sit for an hour, then rinse and dry.

Summary

Salt is an essential mineral with a variety of uses both in the kitchen and outside it. Being cautious with the amount of salt in your diet can help you avoid some health complications and allow you to enjoy salt’s many uses and flavors in moderation.

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