The salt intake that is often deemed high may actually have benefits, scientists say.
“We humans eat more salt than is necessary. But we all do it. So the question is: why?” asks Paul Breslin, a professor of nutritional sciences who researches sodium appetite at New Jersey’s Rutgers University.
In the past, people thought that salt boosted health — so much so that the Latin word for “health” — “salus” — was derived from “sal” (salt). In medieval times, salt was prescribed to treat a multitude of conditions, including toothaches, stomachaches and “heaviness of mind.”
While governments have long pushed people to reduce their intakes of sodium chloride (table salt) to prevent high blood pressure, stroke and coronary heart disease, there are good reasons why cutting down on salt is not an easy thing to do.
Scientists suggest that sodium intake may have physiological benefits that make salt particularly tempting — and ditching the salt shaker difficult. It comes down to evolution.
“In biology, if something is attractive and we invest in gaining it, it must be beneficial, adaptive in evolutionary terms,” says Micah Leshem, a professor of psychology at Haifa University in Israel, who spent decades researching salt’s unique appeal.
People tend to consume about the same amount of sodium no matter where they live, and this amount hasn’t changed much in decades. Those facts hint at the biological basis of our sodium appetite.
A 2014 analysis of data that spanned 50 years and dozens of countries (including the United States, France, China and several African nations, including Zimbabwe and South Africa) found that the quantity of sodium that most people consume (and then excrete) falls into a historically narrow range of 2.6 to 4.8 grams per day. (And then there are extremes: In 16th-century Sweden, for example, people ate 100 grams a day, mostly from fish that had been salted to preserve it.)
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