Licking the Salt Habit: When it May Have Started and What You Can Do About it.

by Paige on February 26, 2013

photo credit: naydeeyah via photopin cc

You’re at the movies, waiting in line at the concession stand. What’s it going to be? The salty bag of popcorn or the Sour Patch Kids, or no wait…how about those savory Reece’s Pieces? Evidence says some will go for the salty popcorn every time.  What is it about taste preferences that make some people crave the salt?

When your body is depleted of salt (more specifically, sodium), it will without a doubt start sending signals to your brain to start looking for the salt shaker. However, the vast majority of us aren’t running through the African savannah depleting our sodium stores, so why are we still craving the salt when our bodies don’t need more of it? For an answer, researchers took a look back to the day you were born.

Within the first 6 months of an infant’s life, taste buds begin to develop and mature. As it happens, this critical period may also be when your mother set you up for those salt cravings you have now.

photo credit: .aLx. via photopin cc

The study design was simple. Sixty-one babies were divided into groups according to their diets within their first 6 months of life. The separate diets included, table foods, baby foods, or both. If the baby was on a table food diet, mothers were asked to describe the types of foods (starch, fruit, vegetable, or meat).

At 2 months and 6 months of age, the babies were given 3 bottles of water: 1 with plain H20, and 2 with different amounts of salt (sodium chloride).  The bottles were given to the babies in random order and then for a second time in the reverse order.

The researchers found that it was only the infants who were fed a starchy table food diet (typically high in salt) that rejected salty water at 2 months, but then accepted at 6 months. Not only did this group accept the salty water, but they actually drank up to 55% more than the other groups.

After the initial experiment, 26 of the children were followed up when they were 3-4 years old. This time, the mother and children answered a variety of questions that focused particularly on salt eating behaviors and preferences. At age 3-4 years, the results were even more revealing. Sure enough, the infants that were fed the starchy table food diet and drank the salty water were also the ones that were more likely to have salty preferences (like licking salt off their food and adding salt to food before tasting it).

So maybe you have some insight as to why you dig into the bag of popcorn and not the Sour Patch Kids, but now what?  You’re a grown adult, and you still find yourself liking the salt. What to do?

photo credit: jeffreyw via photopin cc

There’s hope that you may be able to retrain your taste preference for salt. A study in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition took a group of adult subjects and placed them on a low sodium diet for 5 months. After the 5 months, subjects actually changed their perception of salt.  Overall sensitivity and perceived saltiness of crackers and soup significantly increased after the low sodium diet.  Think about it like having that first cocktail after a long period of sobriety–you don’t need much before you start feeling it have an effect. Essentially, you “re-sensitize”, and the foods that were once not salty enough, all of sudden become preferred. Not to mention, changes in salt preferences were seen within just the first 2 months.

Before you go blaming your mother for your salty snack sessions, keep in mind that the scientific mechanisms responsible for salt sensitivity are still a bit murky in the literature. It wasn’t until 2010 that scientists actually discovered the cells responsive to salt (which, by the way, are completely different than the ones responsive to sweet, sour, and savory). That said, with the overwhelming evidence supporting the role of dietary sodium and risk for hypertension, these studies at least lend some insight to the possible development of salt preference and how we might be able to change it. For now, just be aware that racking up your daily milligrams of sodium is an easy thing to do, even if you don’t lay a hand on the salt shaker.

If you’ve taken notice to your food labels, it’s not surprising that Americans are consuming on average 3300 mg/day (well above the recommended 2300 mg/day). Perhaps retraining your taste buds could be an effective tool if you have high blood pressure (according to the CDC, this is approximately 68 million Americans). And, in case you didn’t know, the new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have further lowered the recommendations for daily sodium intake for certain high-risk populations.

Photo Taken By Yours Truly

For salt lovers and non-salt lovers alike, here are some easy tips if you’re looking to cut back on the salt:

  • Start looking at your food labels—be careful with the packaged grains (yes, this means breads), sauces, canned foods, and frozen prepared meals
  • Reduce packaged food, and incorporate more fresh produce into your diet
  • When you cook, skip the salt; you can always add a little on later if you decide you want it.
  • If dining out, always ask how something is prepared. Never feel bad about asking for sauces or dressing on the side.


David Reedy February 26, 2013 at 8:43 am

Well written and informative

Paige February 27, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Thanks for the comment David!

Craig February 26, 2013 at 8:56 am

“What’s it going to be? The salty bag of popcorn or the Sour Patch Kids, . . .?”

Why can’t the answer be both?

Lola February 26, 2013 at 10:49 am

Or neither. :)

Kathy February 26, 2013 at 10:14 pm

Like the way you think. And, easier to share.

But how does your exercise/sweating affect your desire (or need) for sodium.

Paige February 27, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Thanks Kathy, I’m glad you enjoyed the read.

From what I have learned…when you sweat from exercise, you are losing far more fluid than you are sodium. The loss in fluid actually causes the body’s sodium levels to rise, not fall. Thus, the “thirst quenching” mechanism that you experience probably happens in an effort to “dilute” your body’s sodium concentrations, not necessarily replenish them. Hydration seems to be the bigger issue when it comes to sweat!

Fascinating how we can easily mistake two signals!

Paige February 27, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Paige February 27, 2013 at 9:38 pm

Oh yes, the sugar craving is also a very powerful driver for food choice (I never said people don’t have a preference for both!). There is plenty of research surrounding the “sugar addiction” issue (especially when you think about the different forms of sugar). Maybe a future blog post…

Andrew Maynard February 26, 2013 at 9:38 am

Thanks Paige. I’d be interested to know how many babies under 6 months are fed table food, and in the study when did the children transition to table food?

Paige February 27, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Good question, I have not found a statistic for that.

From what I have read from different sources it looks like most pediatricians recommend introducing solid foods between 4-6 months. There has been a lot of research surrounding formula fed babies that are introduced to table food before 6 months have a significant greater risk of becoming obese.

In this study, that is one thing that was not really specified. All of the babies were unexposed to table food at 2 months when they were given the first round of water tastings. And then at 6 months, groups were divided depending on the reported diet. So, table food was introduced anywhere between 3-6 months.

Robb February 26, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I’m not an expert on this topic, but I am curious if the link between salt intake and hypertension is as strong as we tend to think it is.

See this critic:

Paige March 2, 2013 at 6:13 pm


First, thank you for your comment.

While researching this topic, I did come across some animal studies that looked at different gene variances for salt sensitivity. It has been shown that some individuals may be more sensitive to the negative impacts of sodium on blood pressure. While there have been some recent debates on the strength of this association, I’m not sure that the evidence is sufficient enough to draw any immediate conclusions.

However, reducing salt as a way to reduce high blood pressure is well defined. There have been meta-analyses done to show that just a modest reduction in dietary salt intake can significantly reduce blood pressure.

Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed the read.

ZebZ February 26, 2013 at 4:35 pm

My popcorn choice no butter no popcorn, now potato chips and beer pretzels are my salt drivers and no inventory has done the job. Food wise pepper does the trick and has lowered the intake

Paige March 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm

Thanks for sharing! I agree, not having the foods within hands reach is an effective strategy for limiting our intake! You also bring up a great point about using pepper, (and other seasonings for that matter) to enhance flavor!

Adam February 28, 2013 at 9:38 am

I really enjoyed how you gave statistics, explained perhaps why I always crave popcorn when I’m at the movies and gave some advice on how to reduce my salt intake. I never new that there have been such experiments and research on those babies and that our diet as a small child can affect our taste preferences and diet as we grow older. Also, I have many friends that love to put a lot of salt on their food and now I understand perhaps why they enjoy all that salt because maybe they were fed salty foods as small children and I’m also a very picky eater so maybe I was fed less salty foods therefore I am less adventurous when it comes to new foods. Next, were the babies in this experiment and any other child that had a salty diet when they were young have a higher risk of being overweight or having an unhealthy diet due to their preference of salty foods?

Paige March 1, 2013 at 7:22 pm


I’m glad you learned some new things from the post!
The study did not follow up after 3-4 yrs, but that would be interesting to see.

There have been studies that looked at babies that were formula fed and transitioned to table food before 6 months. These babies were more likely to be overweight/obese later on in life. So there’s definitely more to the story than just salt exposure (I.e. sugar and overall calories) during infancy that seems to have an association with being overweight.

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