The Shakedown on Salt: A Vital Mineral with Healing Properties
Sep 25, 2013 11:06PM
By Beth Leas
We don’t always notice it, but salt is everywhere – in our vast oceans, in cardboard containers tucked in kitchen cabinets, in cured meats and cheeses and other processed foods, in our home water softeners, in fragrant bath salts, in rock salt spread on snowy winter highways – in the sweat we wipe off our brow after a good workout. It has even become trendy to find crunchy sea salt in delicious sweet caramels from the finest chocolatiers. This valuable common mineral has enhanced the quality of everyone’s life since the days of the cave man. In modern times, health conscious consumers are becoming aware that the amount and type of salt consumed does matter. How much salt keeps us healthy? What is the best type of salt for us? When are we eating too much salt? What can we do about it?
Scientifically known as sodium chloride, salt is a mineral necessary to life and good health, according to the National Institute of Health. Salt is the essential compound of sodium and chloride that allows our bodies to hold and move water throughout the body’s trillions of cells. It controls the volume of body fluid, helps to maintain electrolyte balance and is an integral part of proper nerve and muscle function.
Although salt is necessary to sustain life, consuming too much creates adverse health side effects. Finding the right balance can be elusive. The Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines recommend that we eat less salt. Excessive consumption of salt is said to lead to hypertension or high blood pressure. Salt causes blood vessels to constrict, which is dangerous because the heart is required to work harder to pump blood. Prolonged hypertension increases the risk of heart disease, heart failure, stroke and kidney disease. Another side effect of too much salt is edema when the body retains an excess of fluid in an attempt to balance out the extra sodium.
As we move about our daily lives, our bodies work to maintain a delicate balance of blood chemistry. Both sodium and chloride, elements not manufactured by the body, must be supplied through food. The human body cannot retain water without it. We lose salt constantly through perspiration and urination, and, unless you’ve been urged by your doctor to reduce your sodium intake for medical reasons, chances are this fine white stuff hasn’t given you too much cause for consideration. Perhaps now is the time to consider it.
The average American consumes 3,500 mg of sodium per day, according to the Institute of Medicine. The USDA sets the average person’s dietary guideline at no more than 2,300 mg, or 1 teaspoon, per day and less for those with existing heart problems or high blood pressure. We cannot live without the benefits of salt, yet, according to the Institute of Medicine, most people consume too much salt.
Salt overconsumption is becoming increasingly common in the Standard American Diet, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Up to 75 percent consumed is derived from salt added during food processing or manufacturing, rather than at the table or during cooking. Westport, CT-based Clinical Nutritionist Geri Zatcoff, MS, CNS, MSEd says we need to take a hard look at where we get our food: “If you are a regular at the drive through, have numerous restaurants on speed dial, often rely on take-out or pre-packaged meals that are microwave ready, it’s time to take a serious look at your sodium intake.”
The current state of scientific thinking is summarized in a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers found that even a small reduction in salt intake - less than a teaspoon a day - could prevent up to 99,000 heart attacks, 66,000 strokes and 92,000 deaths a year in the U.S. These findings scream for attention and action. While food manufacturers are increasingly aware that consumers do not want their foods saturated with salt, health conscious consumers are realizing that the type of salt does matter.
Our Standard American Diet is high in salt and virtually devoid of magnesium and potassium. Dr. Gary Gruber, a New Canaan, CT naturopathic physician, suggests added salt should be in the form of natural salts containing the full mineral spectrum that encourages healthy cellular metabolism. “It’s not the quantity of salt, but the quality that is the culprit in raising blood pressure,” Gruber says. “The depletion of magnesium and potassium along with other trace minerals such as iodine, selenium and chromium from highly refined salt prevents the proper cellular functioning.”
The process for creating white refined commercial salt destroys the beneficial substances and trace minerals and then anti-caking agents and iodine are added. Unrefined sea salt is harvested and dried in the sun and displays greyish white or pink minerals. It contains 90 plus trace elements and essential minerals needed for optimal body functioning and a properly balanced metabolism. The trace minerals in less refined salt work together to regulate the body’s water balance and manage the nerve and muscle impulses.
Cooking connoisseurs have been using more unrefined, tastier versions with additives like iodine (to help prevent thyroid disease) and an anti-caking agent against humidity. Chefs often prefer to use sea salt, which they claim has a softer flavor. In fact, these impurities are its biggest selling point. Hawaiian Sea Salt contains iron-rich red volcanic clay, Grey Sea salt contains tiny bits of clay and Himalayan Rock Salt is pinkish in color.
Regardless of the type, being aware of how much salt is consumed begins with reading labels. The average American consumes over half a teaspoon a day more than is recommended. Zatcoff shares, “The easiest way to reduce sodium intake is to eat less processed foods. Cook and eat more meals at home where you control what goes in and what doesn’t…Spices and fresh herbs enhance the flavor of food as does a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Properly seasoned food shouldn’t need additional salt added at the table.”
Salt is essential for our health and is an excellent seasoning, but we can get too much of a good thing. As with most things, strive for balance and savor each bite.
Beth Leas is Founding Director of Total Life Center at 152 East Avenue, Norwalk and a contributing writer to Natural Awakenings. She can be reached at 203-856-9566 or bethleas.com. See ad, page 26.
Geri Zatcoff, MSEd, MS, CNS. practices at 90 Main Street, Westport. She can be reached at 203-454-5560.
Gary Gruber, ND practices at 68 Old Stamford Rd, New Canaan. He can reached at 203-966-6360.