Is Salt Really at Fault?
Salt has been used since ancient times as a seasoning, preservative, disinfectant, and even a unit of exchange. It has been valued highly throughout history.
But lately, salt is being seen more and more as a villain.
The media is replete with stories about the negative impact of salt on health, especially cardiovascular health. With the advent of the internet, there is no dearth of information on why salt is bad for you. But is it really? I’m writing this piece today to dispel all the myths surrounding this incredible taste-maker.
Taste aside, the fact of the matter is, salt is necessary for life.
Salt is essential not only for life, but for good health. It has always been this way. The body’s salt/water ratio is critical to metabolism. Human blood contains 0.9% sodium chloride (salt).
Sodium enables muscle contraction and expansion, nerve stimulation, adrenal function, energy production, and many other biological processes.
Sodium chloride also provides chloride, which helps produce acids for digestion.
Salt maintains the electrolyte balance inside and outside the body’s cells.
Salt is important for hydration in our bodies. After exercise, it is critical to replace both water and salt lost through perspiration during exercise.
When diarrhea dehydrates the body, we use oral rehydration therapy (ORT) to restore fluids; ORT, termed by the British Medical Journal as the most important medical advance of (the 20th) century, is nothing but salt, sugar and water.
Expectant mothers and older persons, in particular, need to guard against under-consumption of salt
In Eastern Europe, asthma sufferers are often advised to live in salt mines. The mine’s unique micro-climate is inhospitable to airborne contaminants. No wonder salt has been termed “the first antibiotic.”
But despite these benefits, salt’s alleged bad influence on blood pressure has made headlines in the recent past and is undoing centuries of positivity. I use the word alleged because the truth is, salt’s involvement in cardiovascular health is exaggerated.
Excessive salt is bad for blood pressure. Please pay close attention here. The operative word is ‘excessive’, not ‘salt’. Barring a few exceptions, unless your sodium intake is more than 6 gms. per day, salt is good for you. Researchers in Europe are now saying that it requires intakes of over 16 gms. per day to have any significant adverse effect on blood pressure. That’s a lot of salt. On the other hand, sodium intakes of less than 3 grams per day are linked to cardiovascular disease.
The truth is, high blood pressure may have many determinants besides high sodium intake. In my opinion, attributing the risk of cardiovascular disease to salt alone is a big mistake.
Take for example, high-sodium diets like fast foods and processed junk foods. The reason they have a high cardiovascular risk because they are low in other protective factors like antioxidants, vitamins, carotenoids, essential minerals, and fibers. But only salt is blamed.
Another important dietary factor is potassium intake. Many heart-healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are rich in potassium. A diet rich in potassium can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, even if it has moderate to high sodium levels.
As more studies are being done on salt’s involvement in blood pressure, it’s becoming obvious that addressing these deficiencies would be more effective in lowering blood pressure than focusing on sodium alone.
Moreover, some sodium diets contain various vitamins, minerals, essential oils, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that actually protect the heart. For example, Japan’s traditional high sodium diet is associated with the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease, since it is rich in fish and vegetables.
If salt is really at fault, how does one explain the fact that countries like Japan and Finland which have some of the highest sodium intake, also exhibit some of the highest life expectancy?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) believes that salt is the single most harmful substance in the food supply. These scientists claim that cutting sodium consumption by half could save roughly 150,000 lives per year and reduce health care costs by roughly $1.5 trillion over 20 years.
While acknowledging the good intentions of these scientists, I firmly believe they are on the wrong track and are misleading the public. While it is true that the modern diet (thanks to it reliance on processed foods) contains entirely too much salt, and that people would benefit greatly by improving their diet, salt is not even close to the most harmful substance in our food. That honour rests squarely on the shoulders of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Sugar and carbohydrate levels have increased in the diet in parallel with the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Bad fats also trump salt when it comes to negative impact on heart health. And there’s also hidden inflammation that can cause severe havoc to the heart and arteries.
To make matters worse, by eliminating salt you are opening the doors of your body to a real danger. You see, we humans put a great value to the sense of taste. Now, the four major tastes are salty, sweet, bitter and sour. The latter two are not really desirable. And by eliminating salt, we are left with sweet. So here’s what’s happening. In our effort to cut out the salt, we willingly or unwillingly take in more sweet. Or sugar.
And here is the real kicker. Our body has a way of getting rid of the extra salt (taste your skin if you don’t believe me) but extra sugar just gets converted to fat. Which poses the biggest risk for cardiovascular health.
So, by placing so much emphasis on reducing salt, it detracts from far more dangerous substances in food, which is very unfortunate. In my opinion, the CSPI would do the public a great favour if they focus more on the dangers of sugars, bad fats and refined carbohydrates.
There are many types of salt. Unfortunately, the table salt we regularly consume is the least healthy. There is an ocean of difference between table salt and sea salt. Sea salt contains many minerals like magnesium, which enables nerve transmission and muscle contraction, induces relaxation, relieves constipation, promotes bone formation, and reduces blood pressure and heart disease. Not only does table salt not have these minerals, but it contains various unhealthy additives – aluminum, dextrose, and even bleaching agents.
Sea salt is alkalizing to the body, whereas table salt is acid forming. The modern diet is already overly acidic, and sea salt helps to restore balance due to its mineral content. Sea salt also tastes saltier than table salt, so less is needed.
While reducing high sodium intake makes some sense, further reduction from moderate to lower levels is not warranted for most people. Indeed, restricting sodium may actually have an adverse effect. Moderation is key, not a complete salt reduction. I highly recommend replacing your nice looking, table salt with unrefined sea salt. But a word of caution. Most products branded as sea salt are actually refined and inferior. A simple rule of thumb to recognize unrefined sea salt is “If it’s white, it’s not right”. Unrefined sea salt is typically grayish, or it can have a red or black hue. Choose wisely. Eat healthy. And don’t be afraid to say ‘pass the salt please’.