Bonnie Modugno, MS, RDHealth Blog - Nutrition

Sodium: Its about flavor, not salty

Published on 2010-11-04 by Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD

The sodium war heats up with USDA dietary guidelines threatening to lower sodium recommendations to 1500 mg a day. The logic escapes me when current intake ranges around 3600 mg a day and the current guideline of 2300 mg a day hasn’t enjoyed any success.

An editorial in the Nov, 2010 edition of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition argues the point. The conclusion? “Sodium intake in the US adult population appears to be well above current guidelines and does not appear to have decreased with time.”

Despite almost forty years of admonishing the American public to reduce sodium, little has changed. Americans experience more heart disease and more hypertension. Is it really the sodium?

In the same journal there is an accompanying editorial, written by three scientists (two who have consulted for the Salt Institute). The editorial challenges USDA recommendations to reduce sodium intake for everyone. I am inclined to agree with the naysayers.

I think the scientists pushing for greater universal sodium restriction are missing the boat on at least two accounts. First, sodium intake influences fluid balance in the body. But it does not act independently. Insulin drives sodium re-absorption in the kidneys.


Overeating, especially eating more carbohydrate, increases insulin secretion. The more insulin, the greater re-uptake of sodium and water. People feel bloated, fuller, thicker. They can gain 3-5 pounds of weight overnight. It may not be fat weight, but they still can’t get their pants zipped the next morning.

This is probably the reason Walter Willet, PhD, a co-author of the original research, states that overeating is more of the problem than actual sodium intake.


Second, the discussion to reduce sodium is often accompanied by feeble recommendations to make food taste better with herbs and different cooking methods. How we cook our food is not the biggest problem.

70% of sodium intake comes from highly processed and adulterated packaged foods. Eating more whole foods, cooked from scratch, is a far more effective strategy to reduce sodium. In addition, public health educators and dietitians need to teach people how to use salt to make foods taste delicious, not just salty.

Salt is an amazing cooking ingredient. If used correctly salt enhances the complex mix of flavors in food, elevating taste to a whole new level. I think people could learn to appreciate delicious food seasoned with the right amount of salt. It would be far more appetizing to use salt effectively than to try to cut salt out altogether.


On a behavioral level, the scientists get this all wrong. There is nothing like telling someone they shouldn’t do something to trigger resistant behavior. The oppositional two year old lives on inside most of us.

My goal is to encourage people to experience delicious food that is well seasoned. Add just enough salt to enhance all the flavors. Combine this effort with recommendations to eat more whole foods and less highly processed adulterated food. Encourage people to honor how much is enough.

True education always takes more time, more money and more effort than simply telling people to stop using salt. Teaching the public how to use salt may be more successful than the past ineffective efforts to cut salt out. Forty years is a long time to be recommending the same thing, expecting different results.

The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.