Salt. The stuff which, when you’re seen sprinkling it on your dinner, makes fellow diners fire disapproving glances, expecting you to keel over at any second with a heart attack or stroke. The stuff that, because of the surrounding hysteria, is being removed from foods whose flavour is enhanced by it.
Is all this salt-hating correct?
Well, too much salt can harm you but too much of anything can harm you. Too much water is more harmful than too much salt, as demonstrated by people who keel over with hyponatremia at marathons from drinking too much water without taking in electrolytes (including, and largely, salt)
But salt, in moderation (all natural things in moderation) has a very positive side too, it is needed for many of the body’s natural processes:
- Transporting nutrients to and from cells.
- Maintaining correct homeostasis, which means the concentration of blood plasma and other body fluids – it regulates the body’s fluid balance.
- Helping nerve impulses.
- Helping to control blood pressure.
You’re probably thinking, “But my doctor’s surgery has posters telling me I should reduce salt” or “Nearly everything I have read tells me I should eat less salt”. Well try looking into it a little further, beyond the hype. The InterSalt Study, back in the 1980s, did show there was a connection between salt intake and blood pressure, its results have since been disproved because the study wasn’t properly adjusted. A study by the American Medical Association, looking at 114 clinical trials, concluded that the combined results did not support a general recommendation to reduce sodium intake. A study published in the American Journal of Hypertension this year showed that the human body tightly regulates salt according to the individual’s need, regardless of how much is consumed. There is actually no definitive evidence to support a population-wide reduction in salt intake.
In fact only 10-25% of people are susceptible to blood pressure increases linked to salt. 75-90% of people’s blood pressure is entirely unaffected by salt. Yes those people who are susceptible, including people with congestive heart failure, should reduce salt but the rest of us can stop fretting. Apart from anything else, reducing weight and alcohol intake are more effective at controlling blood pressure.
You might think that reducing salt is the be-all and end-all but low pottassium levels have same effect as high salt levels. The two minerals are needed together to work in harmony and create balance. So if someone is not getting enough potassium in their diet (good sources include beans, greens, avocados, bananas, apricots) their salt levels will be naturally less well controlled.
What is salt and where do we get it from?
Salt is a mineral, mainly sodium chloride. There are two forms, unrefined natural salt such as sea salt, and refined table salt. Table salt is 98% sodium chloride with added chemicals to help it stay dry, and to make it pour better (yuk). Table salt is inferior to unrefined salt because processing changes both its structure and the way the body deals with it. It can cause more fluid retention than unrefined salt because it attracts extra water molecules (all salt affects fluid retention/balance) On the other hand unrefined salt is about 85% sodium chloride with the benefit of natural extra minerals, including magnesium potassium and calcium (see what nature did there?)
More than 80% of the salt we consume comes from processed and manufactured foods; crisps, cheese, pickles, fast food, processed meats and smoked fish are particularly high in salt. It stands to reason that if we eat a largely natural, unprocessed diet our salt intake will be reduced regardless of salting our food at the table. People who eat a highly processed diet are getting more salt than those seen salting their natural foods at the table!
So shall I not worry at all about how much salt I eat and can I eat more salt?
Ummm, yes you should moderate your salt intake as you moderate everything, and no you should not TRY to eat more salt. As I said earlier, we can have too much of anything and if you are one of the minority percentage of people who are susceptible to blood pressure increases via salt then you must reduce your intake. Beware of food labels too; salt is mainly sodium chloride and every gram of salt contains 0.4g of sodium. So if a food label only states the amount of sodium you must multiply it by 2.5 to get the salt content.
But the bottom line is, if you have normal blood pressure and eat a largely natural, unprocessed diet then do not be afraid to enhance the taste of your food by adding salt if you feel it needs it.