You’ve definitely heard of sodium chloride — commonly known as salt — and chances are you add it to your food all the time. Though it is the oldest known food additive, and has been a component of our diets since 2000 BC, it is currently one of the most controversial things we consume on a daily basis.

For optimal health, the National Academy of Sciences recommends consuming approximately 1,500 mg of sodium each day, and no more than 2,300 mg — which is equivalent to about 1 teaspoon of salt. The results of the 2004 Canadian Community Healthy Survey show that 85 per cent of men and up to 83 per cent of women exceed this amount. The average Canadian consumes 3,092 mg of sodium each day. This is understandable considering that an average six-inch submarine sandwich alone contains 1,650 mg of sodium.

This is worrisome because high salt intake is associated with high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor leading to stroke and coronary heart disease. These conditions are currently the leading causes of death worldwide. Reducing our society’s sodium consumption is important not only from a health perspective, but also from an economic perspective. Reducing Canadian sodium intake by 1,800 mg could result in direct health care savings of $1.38 billion each year, plus an additional $2.99 billion in indirect health care cost savings.

One of the roadblocks towards reducing sodium intake is overcoming the many functional properties that sodium serves in foods. For instance, sodium is important for preservation since it inhibits microbial growth, thus prolonging shelf-life. The greatest challenge associated with sodium reduction in food is the change in taste. Studies have shown that salt can be reduced by 29 per cent without a detectable difference in the taste of the food.

Other attempts to reduce salt have been through the use of “flake/dendritic” salt, which is chemically identical to sodium, but shaped differently. The change in shape allows it to impart a stronger flavour, and thus enables processors to use a smaller quantity. Scientists are also experimenting with sodium chloride substitutes such as potassium chloride.

Sodium has had a rich history: it was once as valuable as gold, and wars have been fought to win control over it. Today, people’s love for salt is bittersweet. While it is an essential component of our food, limiting its usage could prevent 23,500 heart attacks each year. While reducing the sodium you add to your food via a salt shaker is a good idea, this is only a small step that individuals can take towards lowering the sodium content of their diets. Since the largest sources of sodium are processed and take-out foods, addressing this problem will require commitment from the food industry.