Salt: A Closer Look

Salt. Such a common, ordinary, mainstay in almost every kitchen. Flavors foods, blends foods, helps to preserve foods. Lots of uses – many positives- and some significant drawbacks when over-used and sometimes under-used.

These were my first thoughts recently when one of my clients told me her story of trouble with not too much salt, as is usually the case, but too little. I hadn’t heard that one, so decided to spend some time reading up.

Salt is often a hotly debated topic in the natural health community, and in recent years has come under substantial scrutiny. It is a combination of salt and chloride (NaCl on the chemistry chart). While salt and sodium are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Salt is about 40% sodium and 60% chloride.

Sodium, to be sure, is a nutrient that our body needs to function properly.

It is involved in the normal activity of muscles, nerves, blood pressure regulation and blood volume. Sodium is found naturally in many foods, but, and here’s the rub, natural sodium makes up a small percentage of sodium intake in America.

Naturally Occurring Sodium

All vegetables contain sodium naturally. Celery, in particular, is a wonderful source, followed by carrots and broccoli. Beans and fruit have lesser amounts, such as black beans, pears, kidney beans, and mango.  Grains have less, but some sodium.

Additionally, drinking water generally contains low amounts of sodium, but sometimes, because of road salt runoff or water softeners, contains more.  Usually these elevations don’t matter much to our overall levels of consumption, except to people on low or no-salt diets.

Meats also contain some sodium. Extra caution is needed here, however, as so many animal products have had hormones, anti-biotics and other  chemicals injected into them, the bulk of which contain one or several variations of salt – hardly naturally occurring.

Salts Added to Foods

People adding salt to their meals encompasses another small percentage of sodium intake, and it’s worth looking at different types of salt. Type matters, and we have some control here.

Himalayan Salt comes from a rock salt mined from ancient salt beds in the Himalayan mountains.  Since these salt beds are ancient and dried, they don’t have the contamination of modern sea salts and contain dozens of other trace minerals, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper, and iron. It is recognized for its beautiful pink color, mineral content, and therapeutic properties. Used regularly and moderately, it balances electrolytes, supports proper nutrient absorption, eliminates toxins, balances the body’s pH, normalizes blood pressure, and increases circulation and conductivity.

Sea Salt, as the name suggests, is mined from the sea. It is higher in valuable minerals than ordinary table salt, which is bleached and treated chemically in other ways as well. Celtic Sea Salt and Real Salt are two reliable brands and both brands have a wide variety of trace minerals to recommend them. A caution here is that dead sea salt contains too much bromide to be helpful, and make sure that any brand comes from uncontaminated sources.

Table Salt is what you find on most in most kitchen cabinets, on restaurant tables, and in processed foods.  It is an industrial product made in factories and heated to over 1000 degrees. Often, aluminum hydroxide, (an anti-caking agent), and other chemicals are added, along with iodine (which has its own cautions when not consumed from natural sources with selenium.)

This is the salt often used in studies about sodium consumption.  Large amounts of these elements in isolation, especially with added iodine, which can potentially lead to thyroid problems, may be causing more harm than good. Some research suspects that sodium chloride in isolated form could be one of the factors in the increase of autoimmune disease in recent decades. I, for one, would not be surprised by such a finding.

Salt in Processed Foods

Most of the salt we consume, though, is added in a variety of types of salt that comes from sodium tucked into processed foods, such as canned soups and vegetables, lunch meats, and frozen dinners. It is used to keep foods safe, (unspoiled for longer than it’s natural life), enhance a food’s color, or give it a firmer texture, or all of these things.

More than 70% of the sodium we eat comes from processed, prepackaged, restaurant foods, and fast foods, making it much more difficult to limit than when consuming it from the many natural sources where it is found in sufficient amounts for our health. One study found that the top six salt sources in the US diet include breads and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soup, and burritos and tacos. (And some of these don’t even taste salty!)

The Way Forward to Better Health

Most Americans do not need to worry about consuming enough sodium, as my client at this stage of her journey that I mentioned earlie,. Rather, most of us actually take in too much. The average American consumes 3400 milligrams of sodium a day.  Too much of it can result in high blood pressure and fluid buildup in people with cirrhosis, congestive failure and kidney disease.  Keeping your intake to less than 2300 milligrams per day or less or less than 1500 milligrams a day if a low-sodium diet has been recommended to you. (This is often the case for black people, people with high blood pressure, and the ones older than 50.)

It is also important to note that consuming too little salt carries its own share of problems.  Salt-induced hypertension is typically blamed as a cause of heart disease, a low salt intake is associated with higher mortality from cardiovascular events. One study demonstrated in 2011 that a too-low-salt diet was more likely to be linked to stroke, heart attack and death.

The answer is to eat more whole, fresh, plant-based foods, use Himalayan Mountain Salt or a good sea salt if you must salt your food, and, probably most importantly, cut way back on all processed and restaurant foods, sodas, and sports drinks. Read labels on everything that comes in a bag, box, bottle, can, or jar, and add up those milligrams, especially in the words which are difficult to pronounce and don’t sound like a real, recognizable food.

Biological need for salt varies by individual depending on age, activity level, and health conditions.  Do your own research and check with a medical professional, especially if you have any medical conditions.

Natural salt doesn’t deserve the bad reputation that table salt has earned it, but it does need to be consumed in ratio with other minerals also occurring naturally in whole fresh foods, mostly plants.

Again, as food and culture writer Michael Pollan says,

“Eat food, not too much, and mostly plants.”

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