There was a time when salt was worth its weight in gold – literally. And quite right too. Without salt, life would cease. Your muscles would not function, your ability to think would be impaired, your memory would fail and your heart would stop beating. And yet today salt is the demon of the diet world.
As with so many of our ridiculous diet fads, the finger of blame is pointing in entirely the wrong direction, and much depends on how we define ‘salt’.
There are three basic types of salt most of us can buy – standard table salt, sea salt and rock salt –and within these three categories there are numerous variations in terms of source and chemical make-up.
It may be helpful to think of salt in the same way you think of sugar. Refined sugar contains none of the trace elements (very low levels of both essential and non-essential minerals) and cofactors necessary for health that unrefined sugar does. These trace elements and cofactors are also useful in helping the body metabolise sugar better. Without them sugar is just calories.
The unhealthy season
Salt is much the same way. Unrefined salts, whether mined from the earth or harvested from the sea, contain a broad spectrum of trace elements, often in the same balance as are found in human blood. These include magnesium and potassium, necessary for health and which help the body metabolise the sodium better. Indeed, potassium and magnesium work synergistically with sodium to regulate water balance and nerve and muscle impulses. The more sodium you eat, the more potassium and magnesium you need to maintain balance. Few of us get enough of these elements in our diets, yet we eat high amounts of sodium in salt.
Refined, industrial grade table salt, on the other hand, has had all of these trace elements removed. It is pure sodium chloride, with an anti-caking agent and, in some cases, iodine added in.
If the concept of table salt as an industrial product jars, consider that like so many of the products we use, the popular form that salt eventually takes depends on what is most profitable for industry. Only around seven per cent of the salt produced goes for food; the other 93 per cent goes to industry, which requires chemically pure sodium chloride for the manufacture of explosives, chlorine gas, baking soda, fertilisers and plastics.
The addition of iodine to table salt is a real problem and makes the ‘simple’ table salt so many of us rely on little more than a poison.
In 1995 the World Health Assembly adopted the concept of universal salt iodisation (USI), – the iodisation of salt for human and livestock consumption – in order to eliminate iodine deficiency disease (IDD) and related disorders such as goitre, cretinism, myxedema in adults and neurological disorders in children. As a result countries around the world routinely require all salt to contain added iodine (apart from kosher salt, which contains no additives).
The problem is that iodising salt is a crude form of prevention more appropriate for those living in conditions of famine. People eating a relatively well-balanced diet are not at risk of iodine deficiency because iodine is widely available in sea fish, shellfish, eggs, cereal grains, legumes and dairy products from cows fed with iodised salt. Certain food additives also contain iodine.
But there are also hidden sources of iodine that mean most of us get too much. These include cough expectorants, antiseptics, certain drugs such as sulphonamide, lithium, dopamine, steroids, aspirin and certain heart and antidiabetic drugs. Natural supplements such as kelp and seaweed also contain high
levels of iodine.
Enforced medication with iodised salt adds greatly to our iodine intake, and as a result people in the West are risking iodine overload. As much as 75 per cent of the body’s iodine is stored in the thyroid gland and is used for the production of hormones that regulate metabolism. Too much iodine and levels of these hormones catn become dangerously unbalanced, leading to metabolic as well as immune disorders.
In Galicia, in northwest Spain, where iodised salt is mandatory, there is an abnormally high incidence of hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid), particularly among women. In Japan and the US, where intake of iodised salt is highest, the problems of too much iodine are responsible for health problems such as including thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid) and hyperthyroidism, which can produce, among other symptoms, increased heart rate and blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), excessive sweating, hand tremors (shakiness), nervousness and anxiety, and difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
As with everything you put in your body, it is worth being both inquisitive and demanding when it comes to salt choices.
Better choices include mined or rock salt and sea salt – as long as they are unrefined. The labels on salt packaging aren’t always clear in this regard. If you look at the ingredients and the only thing on it is sodium chloride, however, then you know that your so-called ‘healthy’ natural salt is just as refined as regular salt.
Unrefined salt is generally not the pure white colour that most of us are used to; it tends to be off-white, or pink – like the rose-coloured crystals of Himalayan rock salt, for instance – or grey as in Atlantic or Celtic salt (some sea salts also take on unique tints from the clay pans in which they crystallise). The colours hint at the minerals within. In fact, genuinely unrefined rock salt can contain more than 90 different trace elements.
Unrefined salt without an added anti-caking agent also tends to clump over time as it absorbs moisture from the air – so it can‘t be put in dainty salt-shaker. It’s chemical make-up is far more balanced than that of industrial salt, though, and some nutritionists believe it is as healing for our bodies as table salt is damaging, though there is a frustrating paucity of research to back this up.
Taken with a pinch
In choosing unrefined salts you may also be supporting smaller businesses and social enterprises, which makes the choice not only healthy but also ethical, especially if you choose locally sourced salts over those that are produced far away. In the UK there are three sources of locally produced salt: Maldon Salt is made from sea water drawn from the river Blackwater in Essex, Cornish Sea Salt is harvested from water drawn straight out of the ocean off the Cornish coast, and the Welsh Halen Môn is made from water drawn from the Menai Straits. Unrefined Celtic sea salt, harvested off the shores of Brittany, is also available in the UK. All claim to retain high levels of trace elements.
The advice for anyone in a salt dilemma is simply this: ‘bad’ salt is bad for you – and too much of any one thing in the diet can cause serious nutritional and chemical imbalances. So when choosing, opt for an unrefined salt, and use it only occasionally as a seasoning.
If you want to cut down on your salt intake, stop eating preprepared meals and snacks. These are by far and away the greatest source of hidden salt in our diets.
Be aware also of what you are eating from day to day. A range of foods, such as smoked meat and fish, are naturally salty, so you don’t need to add more. When you cook gradually lower the amount of salt each time you cook, so your palette eventually gets used to less. Eventually you will have weaned yourself off the taste for highly salty foods. You can also pep up a meal’s flavour by using herbs and spices (garlic, ginger, lemon grass and so on) creatively. Staple foods like rice and pasta don’t need extra salt, especially if you’re going to eat your meal with a meat or cheese sauce that will already contain some salt naturally.
Pat Thomas is the author of several books focussing on health and the environment and former editor of the Ecologist
Sodium or salt?
According to the Food Standards Agency a target daily intake of salt is:
- 0 - 12 mths - less than 1g per day
- 1 to 3 years - 2g perday
- 4 to 6 years - 3g per day
- 7 to 10 years - 5g per day
- 11 and over - 6g per day
The recommended upper level of 6g of salt daily is equivalent to approximately 1 teaspoon; most adults consume around 8-10g of salt (appx 2 teaspoons) daily without ever realising it. As much as 75 per cent of a person’s dietary intake of salt comes from processed food such as bread, breakfast cereals and pastry products, and manufacturers have been slow to reduce salt in their products or to make their labelling clear.
For instance, most food labels do not show how much salt is in a product – and most of us don’t know how to make sense of the information that is there. When information is provided, it is often listed as ‘sodium’, which must be multiplied by 2.5 to give the amount of actual salt, although some manufacturers now list the ‘salt equivalent’ and relate this to guideline daily intakes for adults.
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