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.
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:
- 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
- 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.4 White sea salt is no healthier than table salt, and is lacking the iodine that your body does need.
- Unrefined sea salt
Harvested sea salt that is not refined actually has over 60 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 recipe), 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.
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.)