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Salt has earned a bad reputation in some circles, so it may comes as a surprise to hear this ancient seasoning, consumed unrefined and in moderation, is actually vital for good health. There is no credible evidence for recommending low-salt diets to the general population, and in fact, it might even be harmful. Here’s the shakedown on salt…
A Grain of Salt
The differences between refined, processed salt (also known as “table salt”) and unrefined natural salt are as great as the differences between white, granulated sugar and freshly cut and dried sugar cane. These differences affect not only taste and nutrition, but also expose you to toxic additives which have a great impact on the environment and your health.
The typical modern, refined table salt can be compared to refined sugar or refined flour—it used to be a healthful, whole food, but our industrial food system stripped and processed it to death for ease of mass consumption.
Most major salt producing companies mine unpalatable and impure rock salt from the earth, then dry it in huge, fossil-fuel-guzzling kilns with temperatures reaching 1200 degrees F. This changes the salt’s chemical structure into 99.7% pure sodium chloride. This is so the salt company can sell it to chemical companies for the production of plastic and other chemicals.
Then, to also reach the consumer market, they then put in additives like fluoride, synthetic iodine, and anti-caking agents and ship it off to your grocery store shelf. These anti-caking agents include:
- E535 Sodium ferrocyanide
- E536 Potassium ferrocyanide
- E538 Calcium ferrocyanide
- E554 Sodium aluminosilicate
- E555 Potassium aluminium silicate
- E556 Calcium aluminosilicate
The most commonly used anti-caking agent for salt in the U.S. is E554 sodium aluminosilicate. Aluminum derivatives have been implicated in a number of health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.
All these additives can cause discoloration in refined salt, so bleaching agents are then used to restore the desirable white color.
So to summarize, while sea salt and table salt share the same amount of sodium, refined table salt has been stripped of all its natural trace minerals, which are replaced with synthetic iodine, fluoride, anti-caking additives, and bleaching residues. What was a natural, whole food is processed into a highly industrial, pseudo-food Americans have come to think of as “salt.”
If you value a whole food diet, and avoid processed food and industrial food additives as a general rule, why choose a processed, additive-laden salt?
Salt of the Earth
Unlike refined salt which contains only 2 or 3 elements, natural whole salt contains about 80 mineral elements, such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, and more. These trace minerals matter not only to taste, but to health as well, because they are essential for the proper functioning of your digestive, nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, and immune systems.
Most sea salt is naturally harvested from the ocean and sun dried, so it gets its wealth of trace minerals and electrolytes from seawater. Some sea salt is mined from ancient dry sea beds, and still contains the natural trace minerals from prehistoric seawater.
Compared to meat, fruit and vegetables, natural sea salt is not a major source of dietary minerals. However, like any whole food, sea salt has a natural balance of nutrients and a lack of toxic additives, so we are actually nourished by it, and our bodies can benefit from its incorporation into our diet.
“These mineral sea salts are identical to the elements of which our bodies have been built and were originally found in the primal ocean from where life originated… Mineral salts are healthy because they give your body the variety of mineral ions needed to balance its functions, remain healthy and heal.”—Dr. Barbara Handel
The Salt Hypothesis is Bunk
For 4,000 years, we have known that salt intake can temporarily raise blood pressure. We also know that a small minority of the population is sensitive to salt, and restricting dietary salt can help lower chronic high blood pressure a little bit in this group.
And we know that elevated blood pressure, also called “chronic hypertension,” is a well-documented risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. We also know that reducing high blood pressure can reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke–depending on how it’s done.
Some have suggested that since salt intake is related to blood pressure, and since cardiovascular risks are also related to blood pressure, that, surely, salt intake levels are related to cardiovascular risk. The idea is known as the “salt hypothesis.”
According to Dr. James DiNicolantonio in The Salt Fix, there is no credible evidence that a salt-restricted diet resolves hypertension in the vast majority of people, nor does it prevent heart disease or stroke. In fact, salt restriction seems to predispose us to such conditions as insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, abnormal workloads on the heart, and kidney disease.
For example, an eight-year study of a New York City hypertensive population found those on low-salt diets had more than four times as many heart attacks as those on normal-sodium diets—the exact opposite of what the “salt hypothesis” would have predicted.
And a 2011 meta-analysis of over 6,250 patients found there was no link between salt intake, high blood pressure and risk of heart disease.
In fact over 17 different studies worldwide have found NO direct relation between moderate salt intake and the incidence of stroke or heart attack.
Most people are not very sensitive to salt and, unless you are one of the few who are salt-sensitive, or you eat a lot of processed foods that contain too much added sodium, you probably don’t need to worry about your salt intake.
So, since there is no proven benefit from sodium restriction for a majority of the population, why ask 250 million Americans to do something that isn’t easy, and may not help most of them?
Watch the Hidden Salt
The consumption of salt around the world for the last 200 years has remained in the range of 1.5 to three teaspoons, which appears to hold the lowest risk for disease. This amount of salt in the diet seems to be universally preferred for taste as well.
In contrast, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that Americans get no more than about one teaspoon of table salt (1500–2300mg of sodium) per day—though many healthy experts around the world feel the AHA standard is both too low and too hard to maintain.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers found that a moderate sodium intake of between 3000mg and 7000mg (1.5 to 3 teaspoons of salt) to be associated with the lowest risk of cardiovascular events, whereas consuming less than 3000mg sodium (1.5 teaspoons of salt) per day—like the AHA recommends—was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular death and hospitalization for congestive heart failure.
The study also found that high intake of more than 7000mg sodium (or three teaspoons of salt) per day, was associated with an increased risk of stroke, heart attack and other cardiovascular events.
Although the AHA’s extremely low sodium recommendation is not supported by a wide body of evidence, the organization does have reason to be concerned for Americans’ heart health, because refined, processed salt is added to almost every preserved, packaged and processed product that we eat. Unless you diligently read every package label, it’s very easy to get way too much sodium. This is important since over 60% of the average Western diet today is typically made up of processed, packaged foods.
To avoid too much refined salt—and the additives in it—avoid prepared, processed foods as much as possible, and be careful to check the labels of the foods you do buy. Even if you don’t care to follow the AHA’s low-salt guidelines, it’s important not to totally overdo the salt too often. Moderation is key in all things.
A Salt Worth its Salt
Natural whole salt has been used as a primary medicine for thousands of years. With just adequate natural salt and pure water alone, conditions like muscle cramps, hyponatremia, water retention and edema can disappear.
But did you know that…
- Sea salt has been shown to be very helpful in treating adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome where blood pressure issues are common. A big pinch of sea salt into every glass of water you drink can makes a huge difference for adrenal fatigue!
- An 8-ounce glass of water with a half teaspoon of natural sea salt and a half teaspoon of sugar or honey can prevent or stop children’s febrile convulsions by restoring electrolyte homeostasis in the body.
- Breathing salty air can greatly relieve bronchitis, asthma, and COPD. There is even a class of asthma inhalers that deliver aerosolized salt water in lieu of pharmaceutical drugs! In Wieliczka, Poland, there is a world-famous wellness clinic built into a salt mine there that specializes in treating lung disorders. Patients there are treated in part by spending their days breathing the saline air in the center’s salt caves.
- Salt stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and digestive enzymes in the mouth and intestines, which are necessary for the body to utilize nutrients from the foods we eat. Salt also greatly reduces the taste of bitter compounds in food, so a little salt can make the difference between willingly eating vegetables because they are tasty, and avoiding or suffering through them. (Parents take note!)
- Natural salts are vital for maintaining muscle tone and strength throughout the body. For example, ongoing low-salt diets can affect bladder control in those who have urinary incontinence, and can slow down peristalsis (muscular contractions) in your intestines, leading to sluggish digestion. Adequate salt is also vital to performance and recovery if you do any sort of regular exercise.
- Salt is essential for nerve conduction and preserving melatonin and serotonin levels in the brain, so it can help with high stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. A pinch of salt in a glass of water before bed can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Finally, a number of medical studies have begun to prove what people have known anecdotally for millennia: Soaking in natural salt baths rich in sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium may be beneficial in the treatment of various disorders such as eczema, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and osteoarthritis. In fact, the National Eczema Foundation recommends adding 1 cup of sea salt to bathwater to help relieve irritation from eczema.
Just like you might choose to nutritionally upgrade from white flour to whole grain or coconut flour, or from white sugar to raw honey, it makes good sense to upgrade from refined salt to natural salts which contain magnesium and other essential minerals in a form our bodies can readily use. Not only do natural salts contribute to a healthy diet in a way refined salts cannot, they also just taste better.
Avoid Microplastics in Your Salt
Unrefined, natural salts are not white and dry; they are typically colored by the trace minerals in them, and often feel damp. Some natural salts are pink, grey, yellowish or even black to reflect the diverse mineral sources they come from. Each type of natural salt has its own unique flavor to experiment with.
But just as you don’t want to eat anti-caking agents, bleaching residues and fluoride in your salt, you don’t want to consume microplastics either.
Unfortunately, we’ve polluted our land and oceans with so much plastic, it is hard to find salt—refined or natural—that doesn’t have microscopic bits of plastic in it. In fact, multiple studies show there are microplastics in 90 percent of all the table salt brands sampled worldwide, Microplastic levels were highest in sea salt, followed by lake salt and then rock salt.
It’s so bad, researchers estimate that the average adult consumes approximately 2,000 microplastics per year—just through salt!
As a result of consumer concern about this problem, a lot of salt companies are testing their salts for microplastics, and are making efforts to filter their salt and assure customers of the quality of their products. Look for brands that mention their microplastic filtering and testing efforts on their labels or websites, and choose safer salt products accordingly.
My favorite low-plastic and additive-free natural salt is Redmond Real Salt, which is from an ancient seabed in Utah that has tested very low in microplastics. Spice Lab Himalayan Salt, Colima Salt and Jacobsen Salt have also been tested to have very low or zero microplastics.
Beneath the Salt
By following a healthy, whole foods diet and eliminating processed foods, you will drastically reduce excess sodium in your diet. Therefore you can confidently follow your own natural taste for salt when preparing your food. In other words, there are few good reasons to deprive yourself of salt—especially if you use a natural, additive-free salt that contains the minerals we need for good health!
Like many dietary recommendations that were changed once we had better data, our beliefs surrounding salt need to be re-examined. So, pass the shaker, and enjoy it without worry!
Updated September 22, 2021