The high sodium-low potassium environment of civilized people, operating on a genetic substrate of susceptibility, is the cardinal factor in the genesis and perpetuation of "essential" hypertension. The noxious effects begin in childhood, when habits of excess salt consumption are acquired at the family table, and are perpetuated by continuing habit and by increasing use of convenience and snack foods with artificially high concentrations of sodium and low levels of potassium. Present methods of food preparation leach out the protective potassium. Extradietary sodium chloride is a condiment not a requirement. Some primitive populations clearly preferred potassium chloride to sodium chloride. Chronic expansion of extracellular fluid volume induced by excess salt consumption causes the central and peripheral circulatory regulatory mechanisms to work at cross purposes, resulting in increased arterial pressure. The protective effect of potassium is dramatic and easily demonstrable in animals and man but its mechanism is not known. It cannot be entirely a direct effect on blood pressure because rats protected with extra potassium against a moderately high salt intake live much longer than control rats but have the same elevated blood pressures. In hypertension with a demonstrable "cause," the high sodium-low potassium environment makes a bad matter worse. In nature, feral man and his forebears were not confronted with excessive sodium and deficient potassium; indeed, the reverse was the case. Evolution has provided powerful mechanisms for conserving sodium and eliminating potassium, but no efficient physiologic mechanisms for conserving potassium and eliminating excess sodium. Most laboratory animal "control" diets contain an amount of sodium that fully suppresses aldosterone secretion, and the same is true of the "average" diet of the American people. Inadequate attention to dietary sodium and potassium makes many studies in both animals and man of uncertain validity. Internally, essential hypertension is an exceedingly complex mosaic of physiologic interactions. Viewed from outside, it is a disorder for which genetic material sets the stage; excessive sodium precipitates it and perpetuates it. Extra salt makes all forms more rapidly progressive and accelerates the onset of terminal events; extra potassium is everywhere protective. When an entire population eats excessively of salt, hypertension will develop among those genetically susceptible, but epidemiologic studies of salt versus blood pressure will not show a relation of salt to hypertension. This is the saturation effect. Low sodium diets are therapeutically effective but generally regarded as an impossible or an unnecessary nuisance. Effective prevention programs must be instituted at as early an age as possible. The efficacy of a prophylactic/therapeutic low sodium-high potassium diet should be weighed against the uncertain hazards of a lifetime of pill taking.