Please will you pass (on) the salt

For decades we’ve heard the same advice from medical professionals – lower your salt intake, or risk high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

These stern warnings have created such a fear of adding salt to food that some end up simply giving up salty seasonings altogether.

Although common sense would have us believe that cutting out this food completely is the safest option, this isn’t always the case.

This week we uncover the truth behind salt’s impact on overall health, so that you can make informed decisions about this staple seasoning.

Does the body need salt?

Sodium – one of the main components in salt – is most often criticised for contributing to poor health. Excess sodium causes dehydration (that’s why you feel thirsty after eating salty snacks), water retention, mineral imbalances, and arthritis. This is because your kidneys need significantly more water than salt to effectively process the salt.

When you consume too much salt, the body has to draw water from your cells to make up for the deficit, which causes your cells to dehydrate. The body also has to draw minerals from your bones to correct the mineral imbalances caused by excess sodium, which contributes to mineral loss and hence, weaker bones and arthritis.

On the other hand, sodium is also an essential nutrient. Your body needs sodium to help balance fluid levels, blood pressure, and to help your nervous system and muscles function optimally. Sodium helps regulate your body temperature by producing sweat to help you cool down after strenuous exercise or activities. It is also a key component needed to produce electrical energy in your body (without electrical energy there wouldn’t be life).

When sodium, potassium, and water are present in the right quantities, the body produces electricity in the cells, which serves as an energy source for many electrical processes in the body.

With two seemingly contradictory views on sodium, let’s turn our attention to the difference between “good” salt and “bad” salt to help solve our dilemma.

Refined vs unrefined salt

Refined salt – commonly known as “table salt”, is processed to extract nutrients, and chemically bleached to obtain its characteristic pure white colour. After recrystallisation at very high temperatures, only two elements – sodium and chlorine – remain. This results in a nutritionally imbalanced product with an altered chemical structure.

Additionally, manufacturers often add a number of additives such as iodine, aluminium, anti-caking agents, and fluoride to the final product. Refined salt is toxic to the body; it doesn’t contain the minerals necessary to maintain balance in the body, and is especially lacking in two core minerals that help regulate blood pressure – magnesium and potassium.

Refined salt is often added to processed foods as a preservative, so check your labels, or even better, by fresh wholefoods.

Unrefined salt, such as Himalayan crystal salt or sea salt, is pure salt in its unaltered form. It contains over 80 trace minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. It also has a distinct colour as a result of its mineral content. The colour varies based on its source, as different sources contain different minerals.

Note that the predominant minerals in these salts are still sodium and chloride so be aware of this is you are medically required to be on a low sodium diet such as those with kidney disease.

Another lower (but not necessarily low) sodium option is herbal salts which often include salty vegetables such as dried celery.

All about the balance

Just as there are health risks associated with excessive sodium intake, cutting out sodium completely also has its risks. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, contrary to popular belief, lower sodium intake was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular death.

In the study, people with the lowest sodium intake had a significantly higher risk of death due to heart disease than those with the highest sodium intake.

Other research has also shown that low-salt diets could increase insulin resistance in otherwise healthy individuals.

Sodium deficiencies can cause a host of ill effects, including weakness, poor muscle function, depression, low blood pressure, dizziness, and digestive problems.

The good news is that by cutting refined salt out of your diet (including that hidden in refined foods), and replacing it with good quality mineral salts (such as Himalayan crystal salt or natural sea salt) and mineral-rich wholefoods, you can be well on your way to better health.

As mentioned earlier, maintaining the correct balance of potassium, sodium, and water is essential.

Some whole-foods that are naturally rich in potassium inlude bananas, avocado, spinach, broccoli, nuts and seeds, oranges, grapefruit, and sweet potatoes. Sodium-rich foods include eggs, meat, seaweed, beetroot, spinach and Swiss chard.

Magnesium rich foods, to support blood pressure control, include green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, yoghurt, nuts, avocado, beans and lentils. Always try to add your natural salts after cooking, and only if necessary (taste the food first).

And as for the critics that might jump on your case for making seemingly “radical” changes to your diet – simply take their comments with a pinch of salt.

Email info@realfoodco.co.za for more information on nutrition.