A FEW years ago, restaurant chefs became fascinated with exotic varieties of sea salt, putting the mineral's "good" side in the spotlight as they sprinkled dishes with flecks of fleur de sel, smoked sea salt and French gray and pink Hawaiian varieties.

Although professional chefs agree that salt is an essential seasoning, other people are raising questions about its health aspects — more precisely, too much sodium.

In November, acting on a request by the consumer watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food and Drug Administration staged a public debate to determine if new regulations and guidelines on the use of salt, particularly in processed foods, are needed. The center went as far as asking the FDA to reconsider salt's status as "generally recognized as safe."

The government has recommendations. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, suggest an upper limit of 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, the amount in a teaspoon of salt. The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, goes even further, suggesting 1,500 milligrams as adequate.

The problem is that Americans consume nearly twice the guideline for sodium....... Fresh foods tend to be low in sodium, while fruits and vegetables are low in sodium and high in potassium, which helps to balance sodium in the body. A shift away from packaged, processed and prepared foods to more fresh foods and dishes prepared from-scratch can lower sodium intake.

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