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

by Paige on February 26, 2013

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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.

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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?

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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.