Thursday 30 September 2010

Hot Dogs: Worth their weight in salt... literally!

For years now, I have been aware of the health recommendations and the growing concern over how healthy our diets are. I have taken to reading the nutrition panels on food products and must say that it is to all our benefit that our society has mandated such information to be published on packaging. After all, shouldn't we know what we're putting in our mouths?

Unfortunately, like a lot of things I imagine, we have access to information but then ignore it. The warning signs are posted; the red flag is up but we carry on obvious to what nastiness we may be wreaking on our poor bodies. I guess its testimony to our infinite capacity to rationalize how we can steadfastly continue a course of action which will see us crashing onto the rocks.

Salt is a necessary part of our diet but as with many things, too much is bad. The recommended daily intake has been for quite some time around 2,000 to 2,500 milligrams, usually 2,400 mg, about a teaspoonful. However new guidelines recently published have set the recommended daily intake of salt at 1500 mg. Those same guidelines are setting 2300 mg as the upper limit. Apparently, Canadians consume on average around 3,400 mg of salt per day which is already well above the former recommended level of 2,400 mg.

While not being a nut about it, I do pay some attention to my health. My father had triple by-pass surgery and eventually died of a heart attack but at the age of 80 so that was still a good, long life. I consider it would be nice to avoid those health problems later in life. As a consequence, I started a long time ago to pay some attention to these questions, faithfully get an annual check-up and talk frankly with my family doctor to both educate myself and push him to do the extra in examinations. And now, with the arrival of this new recommended daily intake of salt, I thought I would do a double check of just what I have been doing.

Everyday food: I never thought about it
Ah, the barbecue! Gosh I'll have a hot dog. No, I'll have two! Mmmm. So, as I'm chowing down on my frank; I turn over the package of 12 to read the nutrition label. Holy crap, a single hot dog, your average frank contains 650 mg. of salt! And I'm going to eat 2 of these suckers?

I look at a package of jumbo hot dogs - Mmmm mouth... watering (Homer Simpson sounds of hunger)- and one, just one contains almost 900 mg. Oh my gawd, I've eaten 2 jumbo dogs and I realize that in doing so, I've gone well over the new recommended daily intake of 1500 mg. of salt. Wow, add on top of that the potato chips I'm eating along with my dogs and I realize I could have been keeling over right at the picnic table from a coronary.

Back in my bachelor days, not being much of a cook, I relied probably too heavily on pre-packaged foods. The kids laughed quite a bit when I confessed to having on occasion eaten "Pizza Pockets". Last year, with my wife away for a week, I bought a package of Pizza Pockets for a laugh. As I stood in the kitchen eating one of these pockets - not quite as good as I remember - I read the nutrition label on the box and discovered that a single Pizza Pocket contains 600 mg. of salt. 600! Heck, I remember eating 2 or 3 of these things. And parents are allowing their kids to eat this stuff? I ended up throwing the rest of the box out; that is too much salt and as I said, not quite as tasty as I was thinking.

I confess to have also indulged in what we used to call TV dinners; nowadays your microwavable meal in 8 minutes. While the idea is a good one for people like me who hate cooking and are looking to get the food on the table as fast as possible with the minimum amount of work, I come back to just what the nutrition label may be telling me.

Last night I stopped at a little food mart to pick up a couple of things. As I walked by the frozen food section, I looked at various packages to check the salt content. A Hungry Man dinner, a steak dinner with mashed potatoes, a vegetable and a dessert - just microwave for 10 minutes - clocked in at 1,820 mg of salt. Now just think about that. You eat that, just one meal out of the entire day and you've already surpassed this new recommended limit. Now what do you eat for the rest of the day? Bread and water? Ha, I checked. Even bread has salt in it - 1 slice = 104 mg - so anything else you eat is going to be just adding fuel to the fire, that high blood pressure high risk coronary fire.

But salt is flavour
That certainly seems to be the case. I bought a can of Campbell's reduced salt soup and it was so bland; I want to eat in a healthy manner but I don't want to give up taste!

This experience certainly supports the experts who say that manufacturers are using salt to mask foods which just don't really have much taste to begin with. Good tasting food shouldn't need a ton of salt to tickle my palette.

Love those hamburgers!
Let's take a peek at those wonderful fast food hamburgers we love to wolf down.

1020 mg - Burger King Whopper

1040 mg - McDonald's Big Mac

 940 mg - Wendy's single

Once again, just a single hamburger takes up so much of your allowed daily intake of salt; you can't really eat anything else for the rest of the day. But imagine adding an order of fries and a soft drink, two things which also have salt. We must now be off the chart!

Think you're eating healthy? Think again!
Lean Cuisine? Ha! There you are thinking how good you're being to your body when you are, in fact, eating a packaged meal and we return to the principal idea of prepared foods: if the result turns out to be insipid (no taste), add salt. This product varies according to what the meal is, but basically this clocks in at anywhere from 510 to 690 mg.

Super Size Me
This 2004 American documentary film took the "experiment" about the foods we eat to the nth degree when the film maker, Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food during a 30 day period. The story followed the changes in Spurlock's health on such an extreme diet interspersed with his inquiries into the eating habits of Americans and a growing obesity n the country.

While the film is an obvious bizarre example of eating badly and eating nothing but fast food, it certainly underlines our own ignorance of just what we are putting in our mouths. All of us must be more pro-active about our health; after all, at the end of the day we can't truly rely on somebody else or even the government to stand over us and watch what we eat, we must bear the responsibility for taking care of ourselves. Keep in mind that the government has mandated that food packaging must have that nutrition label; it is now up to us to read the damn thing and do something about it!

Adjusting to less salt
A few years back, I started buying reduced salt products. I like potato chips (guilty as charged!) however; I started buying Lay's lightly salted chips which contain about 50% of the salt of regular chips. Now when I eat regular chips, I find the salt overwhelming. So, it's true what the experts say: our taste buds will adjust to less salt.

I also like the crackers Triscuit and have been purchasing the reduced salt version for years. Once on vacation, I couldn't find them in a local store so I bought the regular Triscuit. My gawd, I couldn't handle the salt taste; it was overpowering. I threw them out.

But what to do? How to replace salt?
[crying] Don't take away my salt! Anything but that! [I look at my blood pressure] Oh, oh. Maybe I better get on-board.

Victoria Ties, a contributor to eHow has the following ideas:
  1. Empty your salt shaker and refill it with half a shaker of Mrs. Dash TM, and half a shaker of garlic powder and onion powder mixed. Use this sparingly on your table food. You will actually come to like this mix better than salt!
  2. Add garlic powder and onion powder instead of salt to all your homemade recipes such as soups, stews, casseroles, roasts and pot-roasts. Add a couple of shakes of the specially prepared Mrs. Dash TM shaker to the table food when food is ready.
  3. Grate sweet onions over sandwiches and soups for a burst of flavor instead of sodium. Grate sweet onions and place them in a baggie in the refrigerator so they're on hand when you need to perk up mealtimes.
wikiHow has an article entitled How to Follow a Low Sodium Diet which lays out in 12 steps what we all should be doing in our diets. Number 1 on their list is Eat at Home. Like Victoria Ties above, the authors say that preparing food yourself is the best way of avoiding too much salt by doing what you think best not what somebody else thinks is okay to sell commercial food products.

The Number One Killer
Heart disease is the number one killer of us all with cancer as a close second. Obviously there are many risk factors to consider when looking at heart disease such as exercise, smoking, obesity; there can be no doubt diet is an important component to good health. Salt is there on the list with the strong suggestion of not exceeding the recommended daily amounts. Not exceeding it? Let's not forget that Health Canada has pointed out that according to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, Canadian adults are consuming an average of 3,092 mg of salt per day, over double the level recommended. Gee, do we all have some sort of death wish?

It is obvious that we the public have an addiction to salt. Can we shake it? [groan] Okay, bad pun. Nevertheless it is time to be more pro-active in taking care of ourselves.

Final Word
Eubie Blake (1887-1983) was an American composer, lyricist and pianist of ragtime, jazz and popular music. At his (supposed) 100th birthday, he said,

"If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself."

Words to live by.


CBC News - July 29, 2010-09-29
Slash salt intake, Canadians advised

Reference Values for Nutrition Labeling

Health Canada

Salt vs. Sodium

Comparisons of hamburgers

Fast Food Restaurants & Nutrition Facts Compared

Wikipedia: Super Size Me

eHow: How to Replace Salt With Flavor

wikiHow: How to Follow a Low Sodium Diet

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease is the Number One Cause of Death

Wikipedia Eubie Blake


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