Posts tagged ‘health’

August 31, 2012

Salt of the Earth or Devil in a Blue Box?

by notmomscleaners

When I was little, maybe 8 or 9 years old, one day I decided that if my favorite chicken noodle soup tasted good with water, it must taste even better without.  So I heated up the can, sans water, ate about half of it, decided it was disgusting and went off to visit a friend of mine a few blocks away.   On the way to her house, I got so deathly ill that I had to lie down on the sidewalk and put my face on the cool (yes, dirty!) cement.  Of course I threw up.  A lot.  Thus began a minor salt aversion which has lasted my whole life.  While I’m not totally averse to salt, the moment I decide there’s too much salt taste, I just can’t eat whatever the food is.   Based on most of today’s evidence regarding health and salt, I suppose that’s a good thing.  But maybe not.

What is Salt?

Salt, or sodium chloride, is the chemical compound  NaCl.  It occurs widely, and is not only a food source, but a major industrial component as well in the manufacture of paper, fabrics and textiles and soaps and detergents.  It’s a primary electrolyte in our bodies, and, as saline in ocean water, contributes to cloud formation.

Salt for human consumption comes in three forms, unrefined, refined and iodized.

Sea salt, made by evaporating sea water, is an example of an unrefined salt.  Another popular unrefined salt product is fleur de sel, a natural sea salt from the surface of evaporating brine in salt pans, and has a unique flavor varying from region to region.

Refined salts for human consumption can be obtained from sea water or mined, and then further refined for purification and to improve its storage and handling characteristics.

Most table salt sold for consumption contains additives, the most well known one being iodine.  Iodine deficiency affects about two billion people and is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation as well as thyroid gland problems.

All salt, whether unrefined or refined is basically the same chemically and therefore, except for any additives that are contained in it, has the same health benefits or concerns about using it.

Where is Salt?

It’s actually extremely difficult to find a food that doesn’t contain some amount of salt.  So, the short answer that salt is everywhere!  Even in fresh fruits and vegetables, although mostly in small amounts.  But those amounts over the course of a day add up quickly when you factor in the amount of food we eat that isn’t simply “natural” as in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Generally speaking, the more processed a food is, the higher its sodium content.  That may not be totally scientific but it’s a good rule of thumb.   So, canned vegetables for instance,  will contain more sodium than say, their frozen counterparts which, theoretically at least, are more minimally processed.  And their fresh counterparts, even less.

Of course, the obvious salt culprits are chips, deli meats, canned fish, condiments, soups, and fast food generally.

Salt and our Health

Most health practitioners would recommend that one should replace the salt lost during physical activity through perspiration. Too much or too little salt in the diet can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness, or electrolyte disturbance, which can cause neurological problems, or death.  However, controversy rages over the long-term effects of salt consumption.

Currently, recommended salt intake is 1500-2300mg per day for healthy adults.  Those with high blood pressure, certain ethnic groups and others are cautioned to stay at the low end of 1500mg.    This would translate to about 1 to 1 1/2 tsps. of salt per day.

And yet, most researchers in the field will acknowledge that studies substantiating claims that salt is harmful are inconclusive, and point out that the evidence found in these studies suggest that restricting salt can increase the likelihood of dying prematurely.   Evidently eating too little salt sets off a physiological chain of events ending with an increased risk of heart disease.  While studies clearly demonstrate that short-term salt consumption will raise blood pressure, for instance, the real question is what is the effect of that over the long-term and on morbidity.

The scientific question is whether this temporary phenomenon translates to chronic problems: if we eat too much salt for years, does it raise our blood pressure, cause hypertension, then strokes, and then kill us prematurely? It makes sense, but it’s only a hypothesis. The reason scientists do experiments is to find out if hypotheses are true. – Gary Taubes, Salt, We Misjudged You,  NY Times, June 2, 2012

As the low-salt-diet-is-healthier message gains traction among government agencies, medical professionals and the general population, little research is being done on the effects of too little salt, when previous studies all point to the possibility at least, that eating too little salt (salt at the lower recommended range) has serious health consequences as well.


In my opinion, this is another example that eating less processed food is just better for you.  As is watching the sodium content in the processed foods you eat which comprises most of our diets.  Why?  For one reason, and one reason only.

Unless you’re on a medically supervised diet holed up in your bedroom with nurse Krachit,  I think the danger of eating too little salt is not a reality for most people, even those eating healthier diets. And therefore, if  it’s almost impossible to eat too little, you’re either eating just the right amount or too much.  Ergo, watch your salt.

Why do I say this?  Well, for a year or longer, trying to lose some weight, I tracked my food–yes, every morsel I ate– using an online food tracker which had a huge database of every food known to man, from Friendly’s cookies and cream ice cream to fresh spinach, it gave you the actual nutrients of the amount of those foods that you ate.

Now, remember, I’m kind of a salt hater due to my childhood experience.  But almost every single day, no matter how much I stayed within my calorie range, fat range, protein, carbs, etc., I was almost always ABOVE the recommended sodium levels.   I could lose weight, but I couldn’t stay within the sodium guidelines.  It was very discouraging.

Now that I know that, I just read all the labels, and try to find items I use every day with the lowest possible salt content. A recent find for me from Watkins was their soup and gravy bases, which come in at about half the salt levels of other popular canned versions.   This is a dried version which you can use in small amounts with water to add a little broth to your cooking or make gravies at holiday time.  Economical, one tub equals about 25 cans of broth, so it’s good for the environment too.

So what’s your take on the salt thing?  Do you try to avoid it or don’t you worry about it?  If you do avoid it, what are some of the ways you do that?

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