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Shake the salt

08/01/05 12:00AM By Rachel Johnson
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(HOST) Nutrition experts are shaking up salt with new low-sodium guidelines that commentator Rachel Johnson says are likely to be a challenge for most of us.


(JOHNSON) We stood in the middle of the colorful bustle of an outdoor marketplace in Seoul, Korea. We were surrounded by mountains of exotic fruits, unfamiliar vegetables and vats of spicy pickled cabbage known as kimchi. Our guide, a young nutrition professor named Jayong, politely asked my husband and me if we would like to go to McDonald's for a hamburger.

As graciously as possible, we said we would much prefer to try local fare. Visibly relived, Jayong took us to one of her favorite spots, where we sat cross-legged at a low table and ordered pibimbap. A piping hot, heavy iron pot appeared, filled with rice, vegetables and egg. Jayong showed us how to add condiments - the wildly popular kimchi among them.

Although we had avoided the American fast-food meal notorious
for its high sodium and saturated-fat content, our typical Korean meal, filled with fresh vegetables and rooted in centuries-old trad- ition, carried its own health challenges. Hypertension and stroke are major killers in Korea, and their beloved kimchi can take some of the blame, along with fermented soy sauce, soybean paste and chile paste, all contributing to a national diet extraordinarily high in sodium.

I gasped when I learned that one of Korea's public health goals is to reduce the average salt intake by at least 40 percent - to 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day. To put this in perspective, 4,000 mg is the current average intake of sodium in the U. S., and that num- ber is widely regarded as perilously high.

Sodium is a major culprit in the growing epidemic of high blood pressure in our country, with one in five adults believed to have borderline or prehypertension and more than two-thirds of Ameri- cans over the age of 65 diagnosed with high blood pressure. This in turn contributes to heart disease and strokes, the number one and number three killers in our society.

Like the Koreans, we are in trouble with salt. Humans have an innate need for salt, but modern man now takes in far more than necessary. Restaurant meals frequently deliver more than a full day's recommended sodium in a single sitting. For example, a Burger King Chicken Whopper Sandwich with large fries contains a massive 2,350 mg - well more than the U. S. 1,500 mg per day recommendation.

Hidden salt abounds in the supermarket, and many dietitians are skeptical about people's ability to comply with the 1,500 mg rec- ommendation. It may take a major change in our food supply to achieve real success, but we can at least make a start by reading the labels on our processed foods and avoiding those with high sodium content. Our craving for salt is an acquired, cultural beha- vior and can be modified. Just as health conscious Koreans must learn to moderate their intake of kimchi, we, too, need to shake our salt habit.

I'm Rachel Johnson of Essex Junction.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to Eating Well maga- zine.
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