As with most things that have to do with nutrition, one single ingredient, macronutrient, or micronutrient is often singled out as being healthy or deleterious to human health. Salt is no exception. Many books, articles, and blogs speak about the dangerous side effects of high-salt diets. There are just as many postings about the benefits of salt. The thing to remember, however, with anything that we consume, is to look at the information objectively before coming to a conclusion about whether something is good or bad for us. In the case of salt, it is all relative.
What is salt?Salt is a substance known as sodium chloride, or NaCl. Contrary to popular belief, salt is necessary for the normal functioning of the body.
Sodium. One of the most important benefits of sodium is its participation in the sodium-potassium pump, which transports substances to and from the cells, regulating the balance between cells and intercellular fluid. Sodium also participates in the transmission of neural impulses, the contraction of muscle fibres, and the regulation of the acid balance in body tissue. Both a lack of sodium as well as an overdose can be harmful.
Chlorine. Similar to sodium, chlorine participates in the transportation of substances across the cell membrane, the transmission of neural impulses, the regulation of liquid concentration, homeostasis, and the maintenance of pH levels in the body. Chlorine is necessary for the formation of stomach acids and especially for the formation of hydrochloric acid.
Where do we get salt from?There are a few ways that salt can be produced:
• From mines with sedimentary rocks. Yes, there are places where there are literally deposits of salt. In places where the salt layers are spread out closer to the surface, salt is dug out with the help of special machines that help to bring it closer to the surface. This salt stone is then milled.
• From seas and lakes. This is one of the oldest ways used to extract salt. Under the influence of sunlight, water evaporates and salt remains crystallised on the rocks.
• Through vacuum chambers. First fresh water is poured down a hole which is bored in areas of the earth where there are layers of salt. Having created a brine it can then be pumped up to the surface and placed into a vacuum chamber where the water evaporates out and salt crystals remain. It is this method in particular that is used in the making of “extra fine” table salt.
The Different Kinds of SaltThere is limited research to confirm which salt is better for our health. Unrefined salts may have more mineral content, however, you would need to eat A LOT of salt to receive the benefits these minerals have to offer. Therefore, logic would tell us, that whatever salt you use, it should be in moderation. Of course, it goes without saying that the less processed foods you eat (that are packed with WAY TOO MUCH salt), the more likely you will get the right amount of salt your body needs by adding it to real, whole foods.
Refined Table Salt– This type of salt is highly refined and has a tendency to clump together. Because of this anti-caking agents are used to make it smoother. Iodine can also be added to this as the world’s attempt to alleviate an iodine deficiency on a global scale.
Sea Salt– This type of salt is simply evaporated sea salt. Sea salt can be higher in minerals such as magnesium and potassium. Impurities and sometimes heavy metals (from a polluted sea) can also be found in this type of salt.
Himalayan Salt– Comes from Pakistan. It contains a slightly lower amount of sodium than regular salt and it gets its pink color from trace amounts of iron oxide (rust). It also contains trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Kosher Salt– The main difference between Kosher salt and regular salt is the size of the flakes. The bigger flakes found in Kosher salt makes it easier to pick up and spread over food. It is less likely to contain caking agents and iodine.
Celtic Salt- Celtic salt has a light greyish color and is quite moist. It is made from seawater and contains trace amounts of minerals. (1)
How much salt do we need?
Although many authorities on nutrition will propose going on a low-salt diet, what you do collectively in your lifestyle has more of an effect on overall health than just restricting salt on its own. Studies show that getting enough magnesium and potassium, exercise, and low-carbohydrate diets all influence cardiovascular and diabetes risk much more than just cutting down on salt. Therefore, how much salt we should eat is quite simple. If your diet comes from real, whole foods, just add some salt to add flavour…and that’s it! No milligram counting necessary. (Staying away from processed foods goes without saying). (2-7)
Salt as a medicine
Salt is not only an excellent seasoning, it is also one of the world’s oldest medications. It possesses antibacterial and antifungal properties and therefore it is used for the treatment of wounds and damaged surface skin. From salt, solutions for gargling and inhalation are made. Salt caves are thought to be extremely beneficial for the strengthening of the immune system. Baths with sea salt show a stimulating effect on the immune system and improve the state of the skin.
The lesson to be learned here is to not take one single ingredient in our diets out of context. EVERYTHING in our diets should be considered for the best possible health outcomes. Besides, what would our lives be like with a little flavour (that salt can provide for us)?