Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Food for Thought: Is There Such a Thing as Healthy Salt?

March 4th, 2011 · 40 Comments · Food for Thought, Science of Nutrition

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Salt has really gotten a bad reputation over the last few decades. It’s been pegged as a culprit in hypertension (high blood pressure) and many people across the nation are on a low salt diet. Some food companies are so dedicated to producing low-salt foods that they end up making no-taste foods. I tested a gluten-free processed dinner (like a hamburger helper mix) and it was absolutely terrible until we added about a teaspoon of salt. Then it was excellent. (photo source)

Low salt not only means low flavor, but too little salt can lead to death quicker than an adequate salt intake:

A 2006 study published in The American Journal of Medicine tells us that “sodium intake of less than 2300 mg (the daily recommended allowance) was associated with a 37%  increase in cardiovascular disease mortality and a 28% increase of all-cause mortality. 1

Surprised? I bet you’re not the only one.

What Is Salt?

Salt is mainly two minerals, sodium and chloride. It is found in seawater and in mineral deposits within the earth, which are from ancient seas – therefore all salt is really “sea salt” at its origins!

Our Bodies Need Salt

We all know our bodies are made up of mostly water, but did you know it’s actually salt water, with a very similar composition to the ocean? That’s why when someone is ill, they receive a saline, or salt-water, solution, directly into their bloodstream.

Salt is actually essential to life:

  • Salt is necessary to retain hydration, the reason why salt is in things like Gatorade and other electrolyte drinks doctors use to treat patients suffering from dehydration, diarrhea, etc.
  • Salt is key to carrying babies to term
  • Salt regulates blood sugar, important for diabetics not to have low salt intake
  • Salt contributes to a healthy thyroid because of iodine
  • Salt acts as an antihistamine
  • It’s even a sleep aid! A few grains in a glass of water before bed helps you sleep more soundly.
    Sources: 1, 2, 3

It’s certainly important to mention that many people, processed food eating Americans in particular, get too much sodium, and the wrong kind. Salt, like many other foods, has a “real” or “whole foods” way to find it and a “fake” or “processed” version.

Why Are There Different Salts?

If all salt is ultimately “sea salt,” what’s the big deal with the million kinds of salt you can find in a specialty store?

Some salts are different simply for their flavor or texture, intended for the gourmet cook to be able to choose the right salt for a given dish.

However, on the nutritional spectrum, there are three main categories of salt worth exploring:

  1. Table salt
    The common white salt you’re use to. Table salt is only sodium and chloride, usually mined from rock salt or seawater.2 It then has the other naturally occurring minerals stripped from it, which are often sold to vitamin companies at a premium price.

    This refining results in a bitter taste, which is one reason for the fillers, including dextrose (good old corn sugar). Anti-caking agents are also usually added, and it’s sprayed with synthetic iodine to make up for the minerals taken out. (More below) Any anti-caking agent serves to prevent absorption of water, which defeats salt’s purpose to help our bodies retain water. They’re not good for us!3

  2. Sea salt
    The label “sea salt” feels to me more of a marketing campaign strategy to convince people to pay a higher price for “health food” than a helpful statement of truth. Again, since all sodium chloride ultimately came from a sea at some point, all salt is sea salt. The common white sea salt sold for 2-3x the price of iodized table salt is refined in a similar way to table salt, removing most of the minerals in the process.4White sea salt is no healthier than table salt, and is lacking the iodine that your body does need.
  3. Unrefined sea salt
    Harvested sea salt that is not refined actually has 84 different minerals in it (instead of TWO). As usual, when we take something out of a natural food product, we end up with problems (see below on high blood pressure). The balance God created in salt is key. Why we’re surprised by that I don’t understand.Unrefined salt will usually be colorful, with shades of pink, brown, or grey, depending on the source. Some brands that help you make sure you’re getting real, unrefined sea salt include Real Salt, Celtic Sea Salt, and Himalayan Salt. We’ll talk Monday about the differences in the three.

    The bottom line is that real, unrefined sea salt provides a natural balance of minerals that keeps us healthy instead of making us sick.

    Not everyone buys into “healthy salt.” Here’s an alternative view from Mayo Clinic: “Sea salt is produced through evaporation of seawater, usually with little processing, which leaves behind some trace minerals and elements depending on its water source. These insignificant amounts of minerals add flavor and color to sea salt, which also comes in a variety of coarseness levels.”

What About Iodine?

Iodine began to be added to salt simply because people were having goiter problems because of iodine deficiencies, and salt was one place iodine could be “stuck” that everyone would use. Real, unrefined sea salt is a natural source of iodine, but we likely don’t get all that we need if we consume unrefined salt. Iodine is also found naturally in many other foods, like eggs, seaweed (I add this to my chicken stock), yogurt, strawberries and mozzarella cheese. As usual, we’re not locked into getting a nutrient from just one food source in nature. Here’s a pretty fun to read article on iodine and Real Salt.

The bottom line again? You can get the iodine your body needs from unrefined salt plus a balanced diet including some of the foods listed above. If you’re deficient in iodine, you could go with a synthetic additive in table salt, or take a real supplement made of sea vegetables like the one I’m reviewing from Dr. Ron’s. (In case you’re wondering, I’m leaning toward the real sea vegetables, for obvious reasons.)

Does Salt Increase Blood Pressure?

My father-in-law struggles with high blood pressure and talks constantly about how he has to watch his salt intake. Unfortunately, he focuses mostly on the salt shaker and not on all the hidden sodium content certainly in the restaurant food my in-laws rely on after a hard day’s work. He also doesn’t know anything about the different kinds of salt. I’m excited to have a box of the cutest little samples from Real Salt, and you better believe I’m sharing some with them!

Folks with high blood pressure are often told to lay off the salt, and for good reason. A lower sodium diet – when people go from table salt and processed foods to less salt – does reduce blood pressure.

However.

Statistics can be tricky.

The risk of high blood pressure is actually a cardiovascular incident like heart disease or a heart attack, and lower-sodium diets were actually shown in at least six studies in the last 10 years to increase the risk of heart attack and/or have no positive impact on overall cardiovascular health.5

A study in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition from 2000 debunks the myth that high sodium intake causes high blood pressure. They found that blood pressure is affected by a balance of nutrients with sodium, including calcium and phosphorus. The conclusion: “Thus, it is adequate consumption all all essential nutrients rather than modification of any single nutrient that should be the focus of population-wide dietary recommendations for blood pressure reduction.” Whole foods win again!

Simply using real, unrefined sea salt as your body craves it can improve your health and certainly doesn’t sound like it will increase your blood pressure. It’s a very simple change to make, which is why we’re talking salt for next week’s Monday Mission! (The comments at that post are super interesting, as they are here as well.)

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If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.

Kitchen Stewardship is dedicated to balancing God’s gifts of time, health, earth and money.  If you feel called to such a mission, read more at Mission, Method, and Mary and Martha Moments.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Dr. Ron’s and received free product for my review from them. This post is sponsored by Real Salt, but I only create worthwhile content, no matter where the money comes from. I sought out their sponsorship because I already used their product, and every word of this post would have been the same with or without their participation (except the bit about the samples of course). I even found all sources through Google searches only, and used Real Salt articles only when I discovered them on my own. See my full disclosure statement here.

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40 Comments so far ↓

  • Adrienne @ Whole New Mom.com

    Katie,

    Again, great post! We have been using Real Salt for years now and love it!
    I actually was planning on doing a post on salt as well since my father-in law also struggles with high blood pressure and water -retention issues. Though he is a highly trained chemist, he hadn’t read his salt labels and was shocked when I told him what his table salt contained! Did you know that some brands also put sugar in there?
    Anyhow, I once had a copy of a great article on salt that included information on how the table salt itself, and not sodium chloride, is the problem w/ high blood pressure and salt. I am trying to find it again, but haven’t succeeded yet. And finally, I am reading a book on minerals that links high blood pressure to a lack of “available” calcium instead of to high sodium. I will say that I eat a LOT of salt and my blood pressure is low if anything.

  • Rachel

    What about Kosher salt? Where would that fall in the spectrum?

    Adrienne @ Whole New Mom.com Reply:

    It all depends on processing. Kosher designation is done by a rabbinical authority and has to do with processing rules that are not necessarily tied to health issues that Katie is writing about here. For example, I was looking into a kosher salt at Penzeys since it was quite a bit cheaper than the Realsalt that I was using, but I found that it is heated at high temperatures, and if I remember correctly, it is bleached as well.

    Katie Reply:

    Yes, kosher is more about size of the granules and/or Jewish law, not health benefits. Thanks! :) Katie

  • D :)

    Great article on salt! I love salt and actually need the iodine bc my thyroid is a little bit sluggish. Using regulartable salt, every once in a rare while, I would get dizzy if I had too much. Once, after a processed meal and a handful of super salty nuts, I even had a half second of heart palpitations! Very scary for someone barely 30! Since switching to fresh, unprocessed foods and realsalt or celtic salt, for the basic daily foods, I haven’t experienced any of those symptoms in the least (and I use plenty of salt!)…and I haven’t had bad retention due to hormones, either! My throat used to feel puffy…for lack of a better term…right under my chin, too, that’s gone, too!

    Karen Pruneau Reply:

    Interesting. I have a thyroid problem and have been on synthyroid for several years, this summer someone suggested I take Iodine, I’ve been doing so for two months, and the lump in my throat is gone now too. I just checked! :)

  • Ginny J

    Thanks so much for sharing this post! I’ve been wondering about iodine and you answered my questions. Just to share some information I learned recently…the daily recommended intake of salt has recently dropped to 1500 mg per day. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110113213131.htm

    Katie Reply:

    Ginny,
    Oh, that’s pretty significant! Down about a third from 2005 recommendations, wow. I will mention this Monday! Thank you! Katie

  • Ashley Barrett

    My husband and I have an outlook on food that anything obvious praised in the Bible probably isn’t going to kill you. So when Jesus says things like, “You are the salt of the earth” and it’s a good thing. Salt is probably a good thing too!

    Thanks for the thoughtful article, I appreciate that your posts include some of the science in lay terms for people like me!

  • Katie @ Wellness Mama

    Great post! We use Himalayan salt, and there is no comparison to table salt! When we are at someone’s house or a restaurant, the salt (and foods with salt) taste bitter to me now, not salty. From what i’ve read, salt is actually necessary and healing to the adrenals also.

  • melanie

    As always, thanks for doing the research that backs up the intuitive things I assert to people all the time. Now I have facts to back up my opinions!

    And I can’t imagine life without (real) salt. Food would be terrible…

  • sara

    I switched out our regular table salt for Celtic sea salt a while back and will never go back to the old stuff :)

  • bunkie

    great post! lots of good info. we also purchase Real Salt and received the cute little samples of jars. wonderful treat!

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  • Rebecca Miller

    Wow i have been looking for this very info and can’t wait for mondays article. In desperation to find a real food salt source for my son we started using a real salt and have been basically happy. But I have a huge question what do you do about the graininess of it. I made chicken noodle soup one night with homemade noodles and my son chipped a tooth on a grain in a noodle. Any help with this would be amazing! Thank you for this post!

    Katie Reply:

    Rebecca,
    I have no idea where my comment to this question went! I am sure I answered… So sorry! I’ve never had pieces of clay that large in the Real Salt, granulated. Are you using granulated or kosher? The clay doesn’t really dissolve, but other than that, it shouldn’t be tooth chippingly gritty. Maybe it was a chicken bone?

    Sorry you had such a rough experience! :( Katie

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  • Erin

    What is the price difference in these salts?

    Katie Reply:

    Coming Monday!

  • Amy

    I’ve gotta say, now that we have switched to Celtic salt (coarse, in the grinder at the kitchen table) and Real Salt (in the kitchen for cooking)–I cannot stand regular white processed salt anymore! So bitter and chemically tasting! The good stuff tastes just like the ocean :)

  • 'Becca

    Salt is one of the foods on which I suspect science will eventually conclude that different people need different levels.

    My family tends toward low blood pressure. My grandparents had bacon and eggs for breakfast every day in the last 30-40 years of their lives (they started as soon as they could afford it) and seasoned most foods with salt, and both lived to be almost 80 with no heart trouble.

    When I was pregnant, my blood pressure dropped every month until I started fainting in the 5th month. My doctor advised me to eat as much salt as I wanted and drink 1-2 cups of coffee a day. It helped a lot! I didn’t have unrefined salt much, but I found that soy sauce was more refreshing than table salt, which was more refreshing than high-sodium processed foods.

  • Kelly @ The Nourishing Home

    Love, love, love this article! So many people don’t realize that all salt is not the same. Our chiropracter/kinesiologist told us about Celtic sea salt when my hubby was experiencing dehydration issues (he’s an avid cyclist and competes in cycling events so hydration is really important). He now only drinks filtered water with a touch of Celtic sea salt added and his hydration level is no longer an issue. I just love cooking with it. It’s flavor is wonderful and I use far less Celtic sea salt than I use to use kosher salt in recipes. Thanks for turning more people on to the health benefits of eating real, unrefined salt! Blessings, Kelly http://www.facebook.com/TheNourishingHome

  • Heather

    Wow! Way to put it all together. I love RealSalt, even though it took a little while to get used to it. Now I’m dissapointed when I have to salt my food with the ” flavorless salt”. :-P I’m also getting used to adding kelp to recipes.

    I had never heard of the following benefits that you mentioned, and I was wondering if you have any studies or other peer-reviewed sources for them? I looked at the sites you used as a reference, but couldn’t find any of the resources they used. I’d love to be able to follow this more.

    ■Salt is key to carrying babies to term
    ■Salt regulates blood sugar, important for diabetics not to have low salt intake
    ■Salt acts as an antihistamine
    ■It’s even a sleep aid! A few grains in a glass of water before bed helps you sleep more soundly.

    Thanks!
    ~Heather

    Katie Reply:

    Heather,
    All those points are from the sources I found, which may not be the most academic of sources, it’s true. I’m pretty sure I cited all my sources, and I wish I could help you dig deeper, but I’m really not sure where to go with it! If you find anything, do let us know here – Thank you! :) Katie

  • Jill

    Great post! I avoided salt for years, since my mom, brother and sister all were on meds for high blood pressure. I refused the meds and everyone would get on my case. I was at a La Leche League meeting and a woman next to me, another grandmom started raving on about celtic salt. Yay! I’m free at last. I can tell you my blood pressure is what it was when I was 20. As others mentioned, the taste is so much better. I feel better too. And as a pp mentioned, you don’t need as much.
    This may be morbid, but my father was on a whole foods diet. I didn’t know that until now. Everyone said he’d have a heart attack as they ate their low-fat diets. Well, he did die young, from asbestos. An extensive autopsy was done, so the companies involved could try to prove he died from something else. He was 59, they said his heart was that of a man in his 20′s. He ate eggs, beef including the heart, beans etc. Whole milk only. So, even though we didn’t understand it all at the time I did try to eat the way he taught me. He raised me and it turns out he was very close to right. Including those smoothies.

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  • Frances

    What a coincidence! I’ve been worried about my salt intake lately because my mom warned me I am genetically doomed for heart problems. I’ve always had a heavy hand with the shaker and not being a fan of bland food, I decided to try a salt substitute made of potassium. It tastes fine but the longer I used it, the more I found myself adding. Like I was starving for salt, somehow. Then I tried a mix of both but I was still adding more and more and having bad cravings. After reading I found that maybe I was low in iodine. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get iodine without salt and you wrote this article! Now I know other sources of iodine, but you made an excellent point about our bodies needing salt too. I will keep my eyes peeled for the unrefined kind.

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  • Anne

    I finally read this post after reading your Monday Mission Post (it was probably obvious that I hadn’t logged into your website for quite some time, as my time, after being away from it for 30 yrs., has been consumed with genealogical research).
    I’ve done a little salt research on my own, and have come up with more questions than answers. The research results seem to conclude whatever hypothesis the researchers started out with. And the salt websites site portions of the articles that fit their agenda. The one article re: low salt intake increasing cardiac problems also states the weaknesses of their observational study. And they state “the data here cannot sustain a conclusion that lower sodium is harmful.”
    There seems to be no strong data, either, that increased salt intake affects blood pressure.
    So what is one to do? I choose to continue to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, including a moderate salt intake, and not worry about it.
    One article you might want to read: The (Political) Science of Salt by Gary Taubes. I don’t know how to link readers to that site, but you should be able to “search” it.

    Anne Reply:

    Oops. I meant to type the salt websites “cite,” instead of site.

    Katie Reply:

    Anne,
    Your strategy: “eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, including a moderate salt intake, and not worry about it,” makes a lot of sense to me! I like the unrefined salts b/c they’re like God created them, not pulled apart by humans, and that always resonates with me no matter what the research says. :) katie

  • Anne

    I don’t understand why the Mayo Clinic excerpt that you cited is an alternative view. I feel like something is missing. Was the article debunking sea salt? You didn’t give a reference to the article.
    It seems to me that it was just stating a fact. If you look at the Real Salt Elemental Analysis (provided by Real Salt), the trace elements are of miniscule amounts. That’s not to say they’re not there.

    Katie Reply:

    Anne,
    Sure, I think it’s alternative, because Mayo is saying unrefined salt only adds color and flavor, no health benefits, whereas the other articles I’m citing state that unrefined salt won’t raise blood pressure and have other benefits whereas regular salt is demonized with only deficits. You can click on the words “Mayo Clinic” in the post to see the full article. :) Katie

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  • Monica via Facebook

    i seitched from table salt and sea salt to celtic and hymilian salts and noticed a hige difference….i wasnt aware of other salts before. I also have chronic conditions and it has helped with my muscles without so much bloat and water gain

  • Linda via Facebook

    I had a dr tell me once that I needed to eat more salt because my blood pressure is so low. I still don’t have a salt shaker on my table. No one in my family adds salt to their plates. I use it in recipes of course, but I’ve been known to reduce the amount it calls for. I need to learn more about salts. Thanks for the article.

  • Kenny via Facebook

    More information about salt here: http://www.facebook.com/SaltHealth

  • Sandy via Facebook

    thanks so much! Awesome, and timely, as usual!

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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