Health effects of salt

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SEM image of a grain of table salt

The health effects of salt are the conditions associated with the consumption of excessive or insufficient quantities of salt, a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride (NaCl) which is used to add flavour to food. Chloride and sodium ions, the two major components of salt, are needed by all known living creatures in small quantities. Salt is involved in regulating the water content (fluid balance) of the body. The sodium ion itself is used for electrical signaling in the nervous system.[1]

Salt consumption has increased during modern times and scientists have become aware of the health risks associated with high salt intake, including high blood pressure in sensitive individuals. Therefore, some health authorities have recommended limitations of dietary sodium, although others state the risk is minimal for typical western diets.[2][3][4][5][6] The United States Department of Health and Human Services recommends that individuals consume no more than 1500–2300 mg of sodium (3750–5750 mg of salt) per day depending on age.[7]

Acute effects[edit]

Too much or too little salt in the diet can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness, or electrolyte disturbance, which can cause neurological problems, or death.[8] Drinking too much water, with insufficient salt intake, puts a person at risk of water intoxication (hyponatremia).[9]

Death can occur by ingestion of large amounts of salt in a short time (about 1 g per kg of body weight).[10] Deaths have also resulted from attempted use of salt solutions as emetics, forced salt intake, and accidental confusion of salt with sugar in child food.[11]

Long-term effects[edit]

The effect of high salt consumption on long term health outcomes is controversial.[12] Some associations include:

However, a meta-analysis published in The Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that reducing salt intake affects the risk of heart attack, stroke or death in people with normal or high blood pressure.[20] Furthermore, the Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that those excreting less salt (thus, presumably ingesting less) were at increased risk of dying from heart disease.[20]

Another meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Hypertension in April 2014 investigated the association between sodium intake and health outcomes, such as all-cause mortality (ACM) and cardiovascular disease (CVD) events.[21] They analyzed data from 23 cohort studies and 2 follow-up studies, creating a sample size of 274,683 people. In the analysis they classified sodium intake levels, where low sodium intake was a mean daily sodium intake of <115 mmol, usual sodium intake was 115-215 mmol, and a high sodium intake was >215 mmol. They concluded "Both low sodium intakes and high sodium intakes are associated with increased mortality, consistent with a U-shaped association between sodium intake and health outcomes".

According to The Mayo Clinic and Australian Professor Bruce Neal, the health consequences of ingesting sea salt or regular table salt are the same, as the content of sea salt is still mainly sodium chloride.[22][23]

Salt is sometimes used as a health aid, such as a high salt diet being used in the treatment of dysautonomia.[24] Salt therapy is sometimes used to treat bronchial asthma, patients remaining underground in mines or caves for extended periods. The benefits of the treatment are unclear and more research is required.[25]


In those with heart failure a very low sodium diet of 1,800 mg per day was worse than a diet of 2,800 mg per day.[26] The very low sodium diet had a twofold increased risk of death.[26]

Recommended intake[edit]

Recommended intakes of salt are usually expressed in terms of sodium intake. Salt (as sodium chloride) contains 39.3 percent of sodium by weight.

CountryDescriptionSodium intake
mg per day
Salt intake
mg per day
United KingdomThe Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) defined for a typical adultRNI: 1600RNI: 4000Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) (2003)[27]However, average adult intake is two and a half times the RNI. SACN states, "The target salt intakes set for adults and children do not represent ideal or optimum consumption levels, but achievable population goals." The Food Safety Authority of Ireland endorses the UK targets.[16]
CanadaAn Adequate Intake (AI) and Upper Limit (UL) recommended for persons aged 9 years or more.AI: 1200–1500
UL: 2200–2300
AI: 3000–3750
UL: 5500–5750
Health Canada (2005)[28]
Australia and New ZealandAn Adequate Intake (AI) and an Upper Level of intake (UL) defined for adultsAI: 460–920
UL: 2300
AI: 1150–2300
UL: 5750
NHMRC (2006)[29]Not able to define a recommended dietary intake (RDI)
United StatesAn Upper Limit (UL) defined for adults. A different upper limit defined for the special group comprising people over 51 years of age, African Americans and people with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease (regardless of age).UL: 2300
UL for special group: 1500
UL: 5750
UL for special group: 3750
Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services (2010)[7][30][31]The Food and Drug Administration itself does not make a recommendation, but refers readers to the dietary guidelines given by this authority.[32]

As of 2009 sodium consumption in 33 countries was in the range of 2,700 to 4,900 mg/day. The small range across many cultures, together with animal studies, suggest that sodium intake is tightly controlled by feedback loops in the body, making recommendations to reduce sodium consumption below 2,700 mg/day potentially futile.[33] Upon review, an expert committee commissioned by the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there was no health outcome-based rationale for reducing daily sodium intake levels below 2,300 milligrams, as had been recommended by previous dietary guidelines; the report did not have a recommendation for an upper limit of daily sodium intake.[34][35]


UK: The Food Standards Agency defines the level of salt in foods as follows: "High is more than 1.5 g salt per 100 g (or 0.6 g sodium). Low is 0.3 g salt or less per 100 g (or 0.1 g sodium). If the amount of salt per 100 g is in between these figures, then that is a medium level of salt." In the UK, foods produced by some supermarkets and manufacturers have 'traffic light' colors on the front of the pack: red (high), amber (medium), or green (low).[36]

USA: The FDA Food Labeling Guide stipulates whether a food can be labeled as "free" "low," or "reduced/less" in respect of sodium. When other health claims are made about a food (e.g., low in fat, calories, etc.), a disclosure statement is required if the food exceeds 480 mg of sodium per 'serving'.[37]


Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH)[38] established in the United Kingdom in 1996, actively campaigns to raise awareness of the alleged harmful health effects of salt. The 2008 focus includes raising awareness of high levels of salt hidden in sweet foods that are marketed towards children.[39] In 2004, Britain's Food Standards Agency started a public health campaign called "Salt – Watch it", which recommends no more than 6g of salt per day; it features a character called Sid the Slug and was criticised by the Salt Manufacturers Association (SMA).[40] The Advertising Standards Authority did not uphold the SMA complaint in its adjudication.[41] In March 2007, the FSA launched the third phase of their campaign with the slogan "Salt. Is your food full of it?" fronted by comedienne Jenny Eclair.[42]

The University of Tasmania's Menzies Research Institute maintains a website to educate people about the problems of a salt-laden diet.[43] In Australia, the "Drop the Salt! Campaign" aimed to reduce the consumption of salt by Australians to 6g per day over the course of five years ending in 2012.[44]

In January 2010, New York City launched the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), modeled after an initiative in the United Kingdom.[45] It is the only coordinated, voluntary effort to reduce sodium in the United States, an effort supported by the Institute of Medicine as an interim goal in advance of federal action on sodium reduction.

As of 2013, over 90 state and local health authorities and health organizations have signed on as partners of the NSRI. Together, the NSRI partnership encourages food manufacturers and chain restaurants to voluntarily commit to NSRI sodium reduction targets for 2012 and 2014. The NSRI aims to reduce sodium in the food supply by 25 percent in five years and reduce population sodium intake by 20 percent in the same time, thereby reducing risk for heart attacks and strokes.[46]

Twenty-one companies met their 2012 NSRI commitment. Notable reductions include: 15 percent reduction of sodium in Heinz ketchup; 32 percent reduction of sodium in the Subway’s Subway Club sandwich; 33 percent reduction of sodium in Nabisco’s Honey Teddy Grahams; 18 percent reduction of sodium in Kraft Single American Slices; and 20 percent reduction of Ragu Old World Style Traditional Tomato Sauce.[47]

Separate from the NSRI, a number of major food producers have pledged to reduce the sodium content of their food. Pepsi is developing a "designer salt" that's slightly more powdery than the salt it regularly uses. The company hopes this new form of salt will cut sodium levels by 25 percent in its Lay's potato chips.[48] Nestlé's prepared foods company, which produces frozen meals, announced that it will reduce sodium in its foods by 10 percent by 2015.[49] General Mills announced that it will reduce the sodium content of 40 percent of its foods by about 20 percent by 2015.[50] A number of chain restaurants have made pledges to lower sodium over time. MenuStat, a free online database of past and current nutrition data from chain restaurants developed by the NYC Health Department, is available to monitor and evaluate these pledges.

In the United States, taxation of sodium has been proposed as a method of decreasing sodium intake and thereby improving health in countries where typical salt consumption is high.[51][52] Taking an alternative view, the Salt Institute, a salt industry body based in North America, is active in promoting the use of salt,[53] and questioning or opposing the recommended restrictions on salt intake.[54]

Lowering salt in diet[edit]

It is a misconception that sea salt has a lower sodium content than table salt — they are both almost entirely sodium chloride.[22][55][56] A low sodium diet reduces the intake of sodium by the careful selection of food. This aim can also be achieved by the use of a salt substitute, and potassium chloride is widely used for this purpose. Although recommended limits for potassium are higher than for sodium, potassium has its own health disadvantages, and it is advised that such a salt substitute not be used by those taking certain prescription drugs.[57] Another possibility being researched is the use of seaweed granules in the manufacture of processed foods as an alternative to salt.[58]


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Further reading[edit]