Everything you need to know
When it comes to the two most common food cravings – sweet and salty – we tend to fall into one camp or the other: sweet tooth or savoury tooth. I’m in the latter category. I would not thank you for a bowl of ice cream or a sticky bun, but I would take a bag of salted nuts off you in a heartbeat! However, I am mindful of the salt content in a packet of my favourite KP nuts, around 1.3g per 100g, although I have been known to add even more salt, albeit Himalayan pink salt to the packet! I do have low blood pressure though so I’m not too concerned about my salt consumption, and I do try to be sensible (most of the time).
The question is – is salt the bad boy of the condiments, as we’ve all been led to believe?
First, a few interesting facts about salt:
Salt is essential for human life. Until canning and refrigeration were invented, it was the primary method of preserving food. Salt has long been considered valuable. Has anyone ever told you that you are ‘worth your salt?’ For the ancient Carthaginians, that was one of the highest forms of praise. For them, salt was valued as equal to its weight in gold, if not more! It was even sometimes called ‘white gold’ because of its great worth.
Did you also know that…?
- Roman soldiers used to get paid in salt.
- In old Japanese theatres, salt was sprinkled on the stage before a performance to ward off evil spirits.
- Egyptian mummies were preserved in salt.
- Salt lowers the freezing point of ice, pushing the ice molecules apart. That’s why it’s so effective in dissolving ice on the road and pavements.
- Epsom salts (magnesium chloride) baths are wonderful for reducing aches, pains and leg cramps.
And there’s a whole lot more to salt …
Every blood cell, every skin cell, every bone cell, every single individual cell inside your body has a little salt in it, no matter what part of the body it’s in. The salt in these cells allows electrical impulses to be passed within and between cells, allowing different parts of the body to communicate with one another, and for the cell to communicate with itself.
Salt facilitates the transport of nutrients and oxygen, and helps our muscles work.
It really is quite the super-force!
Types of salt
Table salt is the most basic of salts and also the most refined version, one of several reasons that you will often see it on ‘foods to avoid’ lists. After it is mined, it is stripped of all trace minerals so that only sodium and chloride remain. This not only diminishes the nutrient content but also degrades the flavour, which means you are likely to use more of it. It also contains chemical additives to prevent drying and caking – all in all, it’s a no thank you.
Sea salt is the general term for salt extracted from the ocean and because it is traditionally unrefined, there are higher quantities of trace minerals like zinc, potassium, manganese, calcium, magnesium, iodine and iron. Not only do you get more bang for your buck health-wise, but these minerals add wonderful balance to your food so you will find you need to use less.
For many years now, I’ve been using A. Vogel’s Herbamare. It’s a blend of sea salt, herbs and vegetables, and my family and I love it sprinkled on eggs, tomatoes or added to stir-fries and soups.
Himalayan Pink Salt
(This is my preference, other than when I’m eating my KP nuts. I have a salt pig in the kitchen that contains Himalayan pink salt and I can often be found dunking a tomato in it!)
Sometimes referred to as ‘pink gold’, this 250 million-year-old salt is extracted from the Khewra region of Pakistan and some experts in the holistic health community claim it’s about the purest stuff you can get; it contains 84 trace elements and its consumption is associated with numerous health benefits such as supporting bone and sinus health, helping regulate blood sugar and the pH balance in your cells and even boosting libido and sleep quality. It’s completely unprocessed and contains no environmental pollutants. As if that weren’t enough, its beautiful light pink colour brightens up any dish you add it to.
So…is it good or bad?
Salt, also referred to as sodium on many food labels, is found in almost everything we eat and drink. It occurs naturally in many foods, is added to others during the manufacturing process, or is used as a seasoning at home or in restaurants.
Salt doesn’t have the greatest of reputations. For decades, health authorities have urged people to limit their sodium intake to control blood pressure, and recommend between 1,500 mg (1.5 grams) and 2,300 mg (2.3 grams) of sodium per day for heart health — much less than we consume on average. Measuring salt intake can be confusing though, as on a lot of packaging it is often referred to as sodium. For adults, the maximum intake of salt per day is 6 grams so a little different to 2.3 grams of sodium. Here is a graph from the British Heart Foundation to help you understand it better:
Too much salt can have – and often does have – negative health consequences.
The risks of salt
- Increased risk of high blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Increased risk of stroke
- Increased risk of kidney disease
- Increased risk of dementia
- Increased water retention leading to bloating and weight gain
Too little salt is also risky
- If you sweat a lot, especially when exercising, you will be losing sodium and may need to replenish. Maybe you have seen how marathon runners, at the end of the run, are literally vomiting. This can be due to depleted levels of sodium in the bloodstream.
(When my brother was about 9 years old, I remember how strange I thought it was when, after a hectic day playing out with his friends, he would run into the kitchen, grab a glass, put salt in it, then fill it with water and drink it! We didn’t understand why, but perhaps it was his body’s way of alerting him to needing more sodium because of him sweating so much.)
The benefits of salt
It’s not all bad news for salt. When consumed in the right amounts, there are a number of benefits:
- Salt is needed for the production of hydrochloric acid (HCL) in our stomach, which helps the digestion of our food.
- Improves insulin sensitivity
- Acts as a natural antihistamine
- Supports thyroid function
- Reduces stress hormones and improves overall hormone balance
- Is a preservative for food
- Enhances the flavour of food
The impact of salt on gut health
A study, presented at the 2019 British Cardiovascular Society Conference in Manchester suggests that eating a lot of salt could kill Lactobacillus – an important beneficial bacteria found in the digestive system that may reduce IBS symptoms, maintain healthy levels of cholesterol, reduce urinary tract infections and help prevent colds and flu – and, thereby, increase the risk of disease.
As part of the study, the researchers recruited 12 healthy men who consumed 6 extra grams of salt each day for 2 weeks, effectively doubling their salt intake. By the end of the 2 weeks, the authors found that, in most of the participants, Lactobacillus had been eliminated from their microbiomes. They also had higher blood pressure, not surprising.
I’m sure the researchers checked the participants’ blood pressure frequently, as 6 extra grams of salt daily is a hefty dose, but it just goes to show that excess salt can not only increase your blood pressure, but kill off your friendly gut bacteria too.
Eating high salt foods, or sprinkling too much salt on your food raises the amount of sodium in your bloodstream, reducing the kidneys ability to remove water. This not only increases bloating, making you feel frumpy and unfit, but more importantly, can lead to kidney disease and kidney failure.
Common dietary sources of salt
If you buy processed foods, or ready meals for easy family dinners, be very careful as the cheaper ones can be loaded with salt, as well as high levels of sugar and transfats. Look for packaging that has a ‘traffic light’ label – green (safe levels of salt), amber (cautionary levels of salt) and red (high levels of salt).
A heavy hand with the shaker will certainly get you in the red zone when it comes to sodium intake, but what about restaurant meals? The majority of sodium we take in every day is more often than not from unknown sources, and this includes meals we eat when we dine out. Most restaurants nowadays will give you the sodium content of their meals, so don’t be afraid to ask.
More surprising dietary sources of salt
When we add salt to food ourselves, we have a decent idea of how much we’re consuming, but many foods – some less obvious than others – are overflowing with sodium, and you may not realise it. Examples of foods that are perhaps ‘unexpectedly’ high in salt are things like peanut butter, tinned soups, and deli meats. When you’re shopping, it’s important to read the labels and look for high salt/sodium content.
How to maintain a healthy balance of salt:
Keeping your sodium intake in check starts with a greater awareness of the sodium in your food
- Read labels – different brands of the same types of foods may differ sharply in the amount of sodium they contain. Try to choose low salt options
- Buy whole, unprocessed foods and prepare them yourself at home
- Scrutinise restaurant meals, especially those purchased at chain restaurants, as they can be packed with sodium. Sauces tend to be salty, so order meals without sauces or ask for the sauce on the side so you can dip rather than slather
- Get enough potassium – potassium does not directly lower sodium, but getting adequate amounts of it can help to counteract sodium’s effect on blood pressure. The best thing to do is eat higher potassium foods like tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, avocados, dried apricots, bananas, and oranges. Grains, nuts, and juices (orange, grapefruit, prune) also supply potassium
- Flavour your food with pepper, herbs, garlic, onions, shallots, apple cider vinegar, spices or lemon juice. Vinegar and lemon juice stimulate the same sensory receptors as salt
- Avoid saltier foods such as bacon, cheese, takeaways, ready meals and other processed foods
- Be careful of cooking sauces like soy sauce and barbecue sauces. These may be very high in salt
- If you have low blood pressure, then adding more salt to your diet can help to balance this. Salt is effective in stabilising irregular heartbeats and, contrary to the misconception that it causes high blood pressure, it is actually essential for the regulation of blood pressure, in conjunction with water. Naturally, the proportions are critical.
Prevention is much better than cure. Be proactive. Get to know your own blood pressure readings and keep a regular check on them, remembering that it’s not just being ‘salt aware’ that will enable you to live longer, but exercise and taking measures to reduce stress will also add a few years to your life.