Salt - Friend or Foe?

Salt has played a critical role in ancestral food preparation for thousands of years. It has been used to flavour and preserve food for pretty much as long as humans have been on this earth. Before salt became readily available it was as valuable as gold and used as a form of currency. Salt is a mineral compound that is essential for life, it plays an important role in the digestive system, the respiratory system, nervous system and brain, and regulating water intake.

In the last few decades, salt has been villainized as it’s been associated with hypertension and heart disease.

The notion that a low salt diet is better began about 200 years ago and was founded on flawed science. Doctors knew then that the body relies on salt to maintain blood pressure balance. They believed that consuming too much salt contributed to high blood pressure and heart disease. This resulted in large (unsuccessful) government campaigns to get people to eat less salt. (1)

However, research is finding that this fundamental theory more complex. Like current dietary recommendations, beliefs surrounding salt need to be re-examined. (2; 3)

The Need For Salt

Salt has many benefits in the body, including increasing body water conservation and making you less thirsty – probably the opposite of what you might have guessed. This means that your body can prioritize its salt levels, which has been shown help manage metabolism in a positive way.

Salt is one of the main sources of a nutrient called sodium. Sodium is essential to several processes in the body (4). These include:

  • The healthy contraction of muscles
  • Transmission of signals throughout the nervous system
  • Regulation of blood pressure
  • Maintaining the pH balance of fluids in the body
  • Helps the kidney eliminate excess fluids

Given its many, important benefits, it is obvious that consuming enough sodium is healthy for you. In other words, a sodium deficiency can cause serious health problems. (5; 6; 7)

Salt Deficiency

Recently, evidence has been mounting against universal salt restriction guidelines. A low-salt diet may cause serious health consequences and higher overall mortality, especially in the presence of certain chronic health conditions and lifestyle factors.

While salt-induced hypertension is typically blamed as a cause of heart disease, a low salt intake is associated with higher mortality from cardiovascular events. (8; 9)

Low salt diets contribute to an increase in hormones and cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. (10)

Furthermore, low sodium intake is associated with poor outcomes in Type 2 diabetes and have been found to effect the onset of insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes.(11; 12)

Insufficient salt intake is problematic for athletes, particularly those participating in endurance sports. (13) It is extremely important that athletes engaging in high intensity or long duration exercise be sure they adequately replace the salt lost through sweat.

The elderly, especially those with acute illness are also at risk for low sodium levels. Elderly people with hyponatremia (low sodium) have more falls and broken hips and a decrease in cognitive abilities. (1415)

Signs Of Salt Deficiency:

  • Reduced hydration, especially in athletes
  • Muscle cramps
  • Higher risk of heart attack
  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Cognitive decline in elderly
  • Irritability

How Much Salt

Mainstream health organizations keep lowering the daily recommended sodium intake.

The USDA recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily (16). The American Heart Association is even stricter, saying that 1,500 milligrams a day is “desirable” (17).

Worldwide, salt consumption ranges between 1.5 and three teaspoons a day. Observationally, this seems to pose the lowest risk for health complications (18). Paleo advocates recommend a daily intake of between 1.5 and 3.5 teaspoons a day (3,000 to 7,000 milligrams) (19).

If you are very physically active and/or engage in activities where you sweat profusely, (endurance athletes in particular), consumption is recommended at the higher end of this range.

Choosing Salt

It’s important to differentiate between a natural salt and table salt. Table salt is mostly sodium chloride and heavily processed. Natural salts come in their complete, whole form.

Table Salt

Common table salt is mined inland and heavily refined. It’s heated at extreme temperatures and ground during processing to remove trace minerals and impurities. Manufacturers add chemicals (“anti-caking agents”) including sodium silico-aluminate or sodium ferrocyanide to make it flow freely.

Table salt is often fortified with iodine to help prevent goiters. (20)

Table salt is the least expensive but the most processed salt available. It has been stripped of trace minerals and there are better options available.

Sea Salt

Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater and collecting the salt that remains.

Sea salt mostly comprised of sodium chloride , but also contains other trace minerals like potassium, iron, and zinc. Types and amounts will depend on where the salt is harvested and how it is processed.

Regular, natural sea salts contain a small amount of natural iodine, although not nearly as much as iodized table salt. It is typically much less refined than table salt and comes in both fine and coarse varieties. Sea salts contain many more beneficial minerals and taste better to most people.

Himalayan Pink Salt

Himalayan pink salt is harvested in Pakistan from the Khewra salt mines, one of the largest salt mines in the world.

Himalayan pink salt is a rock salt, meaning it is derived from oceans that dried up and left their salt behind, where it was compressed while submerged in the earth’s crust. The distinctive pink color is due to the iron oxide present in this salt.

The salt crystals are hard and dry and work well in salt grinders. They also contain many trace minerals (21).

Celtic Salt

Celtic salt is a type of sea salt that originally became popular in France. It’s harvested in the Brittany region from the Celtic Sea.

Celtic salt is gray in color and contains a bit of water – you may find it moist when buying

Fleur de Sel

Fleur de sel means “flower of salt.” It’s a gourmet sea salt sourced from Brittany region of France.

Most fleur de sel is collected by hand with a rake because the crystals are fragile. The light processing also helps preserve trace minerals. It has a clean, ocean-like smell.

Fleur de sel is not used for seasoning dishes as it deteriorates at high temperatures. Use as a finishing salt on all your Paleo favorites!

Hawaiian Salt

Hawaiian or Alaea salt is a coarse, unrefined sea salt with a distinct pink/brownish color. It is hand harvested from Hawaiian salt ponds which have mixed with red alaea volcanic clay.

Hawaiian salt is high in trace minerals and has a lower sodium content than typical table salt, due to the minimal refining process. (22).

Flaked Salt

Flaked sea salt has a completely different crystal shape than other sea salt varieties. These flakes are dry, have a sparkle and dissolve quickly when heated. Seawater is boiled and filtered until the salt crystallizes on pans before removing it by hand. The process removes impurities without stripping all the trace minerals.

Flaked salt works well for finishing and perfectly grilled steak or some roasted vegetables.

Maldon is a popular brand of flaked salt.

Kosher Salt

Kosher salt was (and still is) used for religious purposes to extract blood from meat, a requirement before it can be eaten.

Kosher salt is mined like table salt, but is less processed and contains fewer additives.

It has a different shape than table salt and is easier to pick up use to season food. This makes it extremely popular among chefs!

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Note: Most natural salts do not contain iodine. It is important to ensure you are getting enough by consuming iodine-rich foods like fish, seaweed, berries, and eggs

The Bottom Line

Salt is a confusing and polarizing topic. Excessive amounts of salt can be found in all processed, refined and manufactured food. Following a Paleo diet principles means these sources have been eliminated

This allows for a greater ability to cook with salt and use it to season your food to taste. It is challenging to consume too much this way.

Paleo principles further emphasize listening to your body. If you find yourself craving salt, you might extra, especially after a lot of physical activity.

Feel free to experiment with any of the natural salts above and figure out which kind you like the best. The differences in trace mineral content between them are negligible, so that doesn’t have to be the deciding factor. Use salt mainly for flavor, not nutrition.

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