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Is Salt Good or Bad?

admin January 13, 2012

Image by diongillard

I have had conversations with people who were new to the idea of “real food” who made the comment “You must be against salt then, too, right?”  It’s been the mainstream thinking for awhile now that salt is bad for your health.  It’s been blamed for increases in blood pressure and other conditions, and it’s even been banned in some cities!

All this fuss over a simple food item: salt.  It’s not poison, it’s not a food “additive,” it’s simple salt.  Is it really that bad for your health?

Is Salt Good or Bad?

Salt is salt is salt…

…or so I’m told, by some.  Therefore, if “salt is bad,” then we can conclude that “all salt is bad.”

However, that is not true.  Not all salt is the same.  Sure, all salt is mostly sodium chloride.  But it’s the “other stuff” that’s in the salt that makes the difference.  Some salts have trace minerals in them.  Some salts have bleaches and deodorizers in them.  Some salts have naturally-occurring iodine; some have artificial iodine added.  Not all salt is the same!

Therefore, we can conclude, “Some salt is bad, but some salt is not so bad. Maybe even good.”

Salt’s Role in Your Body

Before we can fully answer “is salt good” (or at least some salt), we have to know what salt does in your body.  Does your body need salt?  If so, what for?

  • Maintains blood pressure
  • Maintains fluid/electrolyte balance
  • Aids nerve and muscle function
  • Is an ion, or “charged particle” that helps maintain every cell of the body

That’s pretty awesome!  So, we definitely need salt.  Maybe the issue is that we’re getting too much, though.  What happens if your body gets too much salt?

  • Higher blood pressure
  • Strain on the kidneys
  • Osteoporosis
  • Kidney stones
  • Edema (swelling)
  • Mineral imbalance (potassium deficiency)

What happens if your body gets too little salt?

  • Low blood pressure
  • Muscle cramps
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Death (in extreme cases)

Additionally, it’s important to note that in many cases, the body has an easier time excreting an excess of salt than it does replenishing a lack of salt.

I think we can conclude from these lists that salt is pretty crucial to health…and that too little is worse than too much.

It’s also interesting to note that animal foods (milk, meat, eggs, etc.) contain salt.  Did you know that cow’s milk is actually rather high in sodium?  Too high for babies, which is why you cannot feed them straight cow’s milk.  Animals which are primarily carnivorous do not need extra sources of salt.  Plants, however, largely do not contain salt.  Animals that are primarily or entirely vegetarian (like cows) crave and require extra sodium.  This lends support to the idea that we are probably meant to be omnivorous — animal products are one important source of salt.

My jar of Real Salt

Choosing Salt

Since not all salt is the same, we have to choose a good one.  Let’s take a look at some of the options out there and learn how they’re processed and what they contain.

Table Salt

Most people simply eat table salt.  It’s cheap to buy, and it has added iodine, which helps to prevent the thyroid issues that used to be so common in our country (except, of course, for a number of other reasons, they’re common again).  However, once you learn the process of how this is made, you’ll understand why it’s not a healthy choice.

Salt is sourced either as rock salt, or brine (sea water, usually).  It is then crushed and impurities separated out; or evaporated and washed with salt water (so that the salt won’t dissolve in it) to remove impurities.  The table salt procedure starts with 99.8% pure sodium chloride (other forms of salt are removed for other uses).  It’s chemically processed to remove any additional impurities.  Then, other chemicals are added: potassium iodide for iodized salt, then magnesium carbonate, calcium silicate, calcium phosphate, magnesium silicate, or calcium carbonate so that the salt doesn’t clump.  (From: How salt is made)  Sometimes a small amount of glucose is added to prevent the potassium iodide from breaking down.

Most natural health experts believe that the combination of pure sodium chloride (without naturally-occurring minerals) and additives listed above can have a negative effect on blood pressure and contribute to heart disease.  This is not due to the salt, however, but the processing of the salt.

Sea Salt

Be careful — technically, every salt originated from the sea at one point.  Seas are saltwater and that’s how we get our salt.  Therefore, not every “sea salt” is really healthy for you.  What we are looking for is unprocessed sea salt.  This is sea salt that has not been bleached, deodorized, or had any synthetic nutrients added to it.  Instead, it is usually dried or evaporated naturally and used as-is.

Most sea salt will have multiple colors in it, indicating that it’s real.  It also doesn’t taste as “salty” as table salt does (seriously — taste-test side-by-side and you’ll see what I mean).  This is probably due to the fact that it has quite a lot of trace minerals and a slightly lower amount of sodium chloride.  It isn’t “pure,” but we don’t want it to be.

(As a side note, “salt” refers to a charged ion, which is a number of different chemicals combined with chloride, carbonate, or sulfate.  Sodium chloride and potassium chloride are the most popular, but you may also be familiar with magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate — Epsom salts — and others.  “Diet” salt is potassium chloride.  It tastes weird, to the best of my recollection — my parents used to buy it 20 years ago — but there are times when you should use it.  In certain cases, your electrolytes are not balanced, such as in extreme exertion, and you might be deficient in potassium rather than sodium.  Using a small amount of potassium chloride in a homemade rehydration drink can be a good idea in these cases.)

There are a few types that I know of that are good:

Himalayan Sea Salt — I buy this one most often.  It is pink sea salt that comes from the Himalayans.

Celtic Sea Salt — This is a grayish salt that originates in the Celtic seas.  Some sources claim it is only 84% sodium chloride, and 16% essential minerals (others say that any salt must be 97% sodium chloride to be considered ‘food grade salt’).

“Real Salt” brand — This is made in the U.S. from a Utah salt deposit.  Actually, the majority of salt in the world is produced in the U.S.  It is the closest in texture to table salt but without the processing. (It does have a variety of colors in it.)

How Much Salt Should I Eat?

Realistically, your need for salt will change from day to day or time to time.  Your body will let you know what you need by craving salt — or not.

For example, soon after Daniel was born, when I was breastfeeding quite a lot and trying to recover from pregnancy and birth, Ben complained that all the meals I was making tasted way too salty to him.  They tasted fine to me.  I needed much more sodium at that point in order to produce milk and for the energy I required to be awake and heal.  After a few weeks, this changed.

It is impossible to give a daily recommendation.  Instead, salt your food to taste with high-quality sea salt, and you will do just fine.

What do you think about salt?  Is salt good or bad?

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18 Comments

  1. The KEY thing with Americans getting too much salt is processed foods. I know you don’t eat them, but avoiding processed foods (soups are pure salt, as are most restaurant meals, frozen meals, salad dressings, condiments, jarred sauces, canned tomato products, etc) is the only way this statement works: “It is impossible to give a daily recommendation. Instead, salt your food to taste with high-quality sea salt, and you will do just fine.”

    Reply

  2. Where do you recommend we purchase good quality salt? I have bought pink salt and black salt at the North Market but it seems a little expensive for everyday salt. http://www.northmarket.com/meet-the-market/merchants/north-market-spices

    Reply

    • Hi Rebecca, there are pretty good prices at both Whole Foods and Raisin Rack, in the bulk sections. Whole Foods and the Real Salt brand is the cheapest, around $2/lb.

      Reply

  3. I use pink Himalayan salt as well (I hate to point it out Kate but I’m sure that it is not sea salt, isn’t it from hills??). Switching from table salt to himalayan salt was one of the first changes I made. My poor husband nearly fell over when I told him how much it cost but by golly does that salt last & last & it tastes really good too.

    Reply

  4. I think you might want to look up the ‘additives’ in normal table salt – most are minerals that you’ll find trace elements of in your food, and calcium phosphate is the primary source of calcium in cow’s milk (which I know you drink). I just looked up all these ‘additives’ and their relation to salt, and I haven’t been able to find one which comprises more than 0.04% of the volume. And I can’t find any peer-reviewed sources that indicate that sea salt is healthier than regular salt.

    You’re right that thyroid problems are on the rise because of obesity (and excessive salt consumption is usually a byproduct of obesity), but it’s my understanding that iodized salt has been used since 1924 more to reduce the incidence of goiter than to reduce thyroid problems – and it’s done its job there.

    I would like it if your blog pieces had more links to studies/data. The Mayo Clinic, for example, says that there is no nutritional advantage to sea salt – I’d love to see some studies which challenge this assertion.

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  5. It is also good to note that none of the salts that you listed have iodine in them to speak of. When I stopped eating iodized salt, for all of the same reasosns that you have listed, I began to get ovarian cysts. I had no idea that getting sufficient iodine and the development of ovarian cysts were related. I went on a supplement with iodine in it and I haven’t had a problem since.

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  6. Himalayan Sea Salt is from the Himalayas, which were once at the bottom of the ocean. Therefore it can properly be called sea salt, although it is now at very high elevations due to the geological process of continental drift/collision. It is one of the purer salts, but too expensive for us, so we use Real Salt, mined in Utah. We don’t use Celtic Salt, because it is from present day ocean deposits, and our oceans are now so polluted that using Celtic gives me pause. Real Salt was the one we decided on.

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    • Catherine – you raise an interesting question about the possible presence of pollutants (say that three times fast!) in Sea Salt. My husband loves that grayish “fleur de sel” (fancy evaporated sea salt) and I never thought about ocean pollutants. Does anyone know anything about this? Would the amount be so minimal as to be negligible?

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  7. @Sarah, peer-reviewed studies have gotten a bad rap because of the ghost writing scandal and I no longer trust peer-reviewed studies. If you need iodine, take an iodine supplement; I do that because I won’t use table salt with its chemical load. Use a good, colorful sea salt; sea water has a mineral content that pretty much matches the mineral content in our blood stream, and trace minerals are more important than most are aware of; use real sea salt (not white sea salt!) and take a good iodine supplement; one of the best is Iodoral, but you can get cheaper ones; we shop at iherb.com and Vitacost and Swanson Vitamins. An iodine supplement will also provide some protection from the halides that are damaging and are in our environment.

    Reply

    • Catherine — You’re right about peer-reviewed studies. It makes it hard to search for good evidence because it’s hard to know what source to trust! The peer-reviewed studies are corrupt in many cases and if you really read through some of them, they’re poorly designed (basically designed to get the result they were hoping for), or the results are skewed because data was eliminated, or they didn’t use a true placebo, or…. Well, a lot of reasons! I ought to write a post on that someday…. But then you’re left with the general internet. I tend to read sites by alternative yet qualified health professionals and if I see a consensus emerge among many with different viewpoints, I go with that.

      Reply

      • I agree that peer-reviewed studies are not infallible – there are shortcut-takers, biased researchers, and questionable methodologies in clinical research as in all professions.

        I also agree with Kate that it’s important to gather information from a variety of credible sources, examine the raw data for yourself, and then come to a conclusion.

        However, when it comes to ‘credible sources’, I’m more inclined to believe accredited scientists and health professionals who have conducted actual research on a wider population than I am to believe someone whose sample size consists of his/her immediate family and friends. I know, for example, that I don’t have the chemistry and biology expertise to assess, say, the effects of iodized salt on a wider population over a generational period.

        I do find Google Scholar ) to be a good source of information.

        @Catherine: You mention that the ‘trace minerals’ in sea salt are important. However, Kate has indicated that the trace minerals in regular salt (magnesium carbonate, calcium silicate, calcium phosphate, magnesium silicate, or calcium carbonate) are not good. Can you tell me how the trace minerals in sea salt are different from the trace minerals in regular salt? I can’t find any sources that break down the difference.

        Reply

  8. Great article, Kate! I’m passing it along to a friend who was wondering this information just a few days ago. 🙂 And we use REAL SALT now….I can tell a huge difference. It’s awesome.

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  9. Great article. Thank you for writing it. We’ve been using REAL SALT for more than 20 years now. It has a wonderful flavor, and we seem to use less of it than regular table salt.

    Reply

  10. LOVE Himalayan salt! It has replaced iodized manufactured crap in my home. Thanks 🙂

    Reply

  11. […] A kitchen wouldn’t be complete without sea salt!  Get some high-quality salt, like Real Salt (which I use exclusively in my kitchen…and no, they are not paying me to say that).   Sea salt adds both trace nutrients and a lot of flavor to food, making all of the other flavors “pop.”  Contrary to popular belief, real sea salt (but not heavily processed table salt) is actually good for you! […]

    Reply

  12. […] warm butter and honey mixture over your popcorn. If you’d like, go ahead and sprinkle some Real Salt over it after your pour on the honey butter. Serve immediately as it is best […]

    Reply

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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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