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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
- Kidney stones
- Edema (swelling)
- Mineral imbalance (potassium deficiency)
What happens if your body gets too little salt?
- Low blood pressure
- Muscle cramps
- Breathing difficulties
- 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.
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.
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.
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.