Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
Whether you sprinkle it on your (sweet potato) fries, stir it into stews and casseroles, or add it into your homemade cakes and bakes, salt goes into almost everything you make.
And if you grab a bite to eat from the shelves on your local supermarket – even if it’s just a harmless looking chunk of cheese - chances are you’ll find even more salt in there still.
Love it or loathe it, salt – or sodium – is in pretty much everything we eat. But why do we need it, and how much of it should we be eating?
We’ve all heard the bad press and the health scares, warning us about the perils of salt. So how much is too much? And are there any healthier alternatives on the market?
Here’s the Lucy Bee lowdown on salt and all that you need to know on the white stuff. Read on, enjoy, and take our advice with a pinch of…well…salt!
What we know as salt is mainly made up of sodium chloride. You’ll probably recognise it as the white crystals that you shake onto your fish and chips, or tip into recipes to add seasoning, texture and taste.
For thousands of years, salt has been used as one of the best preservatives known to man, especially in meat or meat-based foods. There’s even evidence to suggest that the Neolithic people would boil the salt-laden spring water to extract the salt as far back as 6050 BC1. Amazing, isn’t it?
In its most natural form, salt is a crystalline mineral known as rock salt or halite. It’s also found in huge quantities in the sea (that’s why no one likes the taste of sea water!) where it is the main mineral – the open ocean has around 35 g of salt per litre of water.
However, salt is also hidden away in all manner of processed foods (75% of the salt we consume is already in the foods we buy), including cakes, biscuits and breakfast cereals. High salt foods include:
Other processed foods, such as bread or cereals, vary widely between different brands or products. However, these can also be high in salt:
The salt we use in day-to-day life is produced in salt mines or by evaporating seawater or mineral-rich spring water. However, of the two hundred million tonnes of salt produced each year1, only about 6 per cent is used for you and I to eat – the rest goes for things such as water conditioning processes, de-icing highways and agricultural use.
All too often, people see salt trashed in the news and come to view salt as the enemy. But however much bad press salt gets, sodium is actually crucial to our health and well being – too little salt, and you could cause your body some serious damage.
You see, the two components of salt – sodium (40%) and chloride (60%) – are both crucial in helping to maintain a healthy body and to keep your insides ticking along.
Although we only need a small amount, sodium is a crucial electrolyte which our body needs. Not only does sodium play an important role in the transmission of signal along the nerves but we also need sodium ions so that our muscles can both contract and relax (see, there’s a reason why bathing in sea salts is so good for you!).
As if that weren’t enough, sodium also:
Low sodium diets have even been linked to Diabetes and obesity2 as well as Hyponatremia, a potentially dangerous sodium deficiency.
Meanwhile, salt’s other good friend, chloride, is just as essential to our health. While chloride is also found in many vegetables and foods including seaweed, rye, tomatoes, lettuce, celery and olives, it’s also a crucial component of table and sea salt.
Chloride itself is essential to our body’s digestive system and helps to keep our bodily fluids properly balanced.
After years of having it drilled into us, most of us know the dangers of consuming too much salt – yet that doesn’t stop us from eating it by the tonne as a nation. Worryingly, we knock back 183,000,000kg of salt a year3 – that’s the same as 18,000 double decker buses, or 240,000,000 bottles of table salt.
This is despite the fact that a diet high in salt puts us at risk of premature death. The NHS revealed more than 4,000 deaths a year could be prevented if we just lowered our average salt intake by 1g per day – that’s it, just 1g.
If you are one of the many who eat a diet high in sodium, then you’re putting yourself at risk of raised blood pressure (otherwise known as Hypertension), which can lead to heart disease or cause strokes.
There’s also more and more evidence to suggest that too much salt can trigger stomach cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, kidney stones, kidney disease and vascular dementia and water retention. It’s even been found to worsen the symptoms of asthma, Ménière's disease and diabetes4.
Of course, there’s also bad news for the body conscious types – too much salt can cause bloating, leaving our stomachs anything but toned and honed.
So, now you know - salt (in moderation!) is actually good for us. Actually, scrap that. Salt is crucial in keeping us healthy. But if we actually need salt in our diets how much do we need? And how much is too much?
As you probably know, you don't have to add salt to food to be eating too much – 75% of the salt we eat is already in everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereal and ready meals.
Government guidelines suggest that adults should aim to eat around 6g of salt per day (or one teaspoon’s worth, to you and I), although the World Health Organisation recommends that this should actually be 5g. Worryingly, though, it’s thought that the average adult eats more than 8g of salt a day3, and this can put our health at serious risk.
Of course, children should eat even less salt than us adults. Babies under a year old need less than 1g of salt a day, as their kidneys can’t cope with more – and this amount will be found in either formula or breast milk. In fact, it’s crucial that you don’t add salt ever (including stock cubes) when you prepare food for your baby.
For children, a good salt consumption guideline is:
It seems obvious but if you’re looking to ditch some of the salt from your diet, then you need to cut out the processed foods and eat naturally, wherever possible.
Our other top tips on cutting down on salt include:
Believe it or not but there are plenty of different types of salt – and, as with most foods, they’re most definitely not created equally.
There are tonnes of different salts on the markets but popular ones now include regular old table salt, sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, kosher salt and Celtic salt. Not only do these salts vary massively in taste and texture but there are also differences in the way our bodies react to them.
The most commonly-used salt of them all - and the one you probably use to fill up your shakers at home - is regular old table salt. Cheap, easy to find and used in homes and restaurants up and down the country, it’s the most widely-bought salt on the market.
However, out of all your salt options, this one is probably the worst of the bunch because it tends to be highly-refined. It’s also around 97% sodium chloride, so is higher in sodium than your other options.
Not only is table salt heavily ground but most of its minerals are removed in this process. It’s also far from natural and tends to have anti-caking agents added to it to prevent it from clumping together, meaning it can “pour” better.
Many manufacturers now often add iodine (crucial in fighting off diseases such as hypothyroidism) to fortify table salt. Although this does have its benefits, there are healthier, better ways to get your daily dose. We suggest you try eating seaweed (sautéed in Lucy Bee, of course!) instead.
Sea salt is made by evaporating sea water and tends to be much coarser than your regular table salt. There are many different types of sea salt and each will vary, depending on where it’s harvested. However, it will often contain trace minerals such as potassium, iron and zinc.
It’s worth knowing that the darker the colour of the sea salt, then the higher its concentration of “impurities” and trace nutrients. However, since oceans tend to be highly polluted, sea salt can also contain trace amounts of heavy metals such as lead.
Since it’s slightly less processed than table salt, it tends to have a stronger taste and texture, so you don’t need to sprinkle as much onto your food to taste the full effects.
Well known in health food circles, Himalayan Pink Salt is harvested in Pakistan at the Khewra Salt Mine – the world’s second largest mine.
This salt contains small amounts of iron oxide, or rust, which give it its distinctive baby pink colour. It also contains certain nutrients and minerals, including calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium and has slightly lower amounts of sodium than other salts.
Aside from being the perfect addition to food, Himalayan salt can also be added to a relaxing bath. The larger salt grains are usually used for this, making it easier for the nutrients in the salt to be absorbed into the body. All quite impressive for being a salt, isn't it?
Originally used for religious reasons, Kosher Salt was often used by those of a Jewish faith to help extract blood from meat before it was eaten.
Because of this, Kosher Salt has a slightly flakier and coarser structure. Many chefs around the world now use Kosher Salt because its large flake size means it’s easy to pick up and sprinkle over food. It also dissolves quickly and disperses flavour fast, meaning chefs use it for pretty much any dish under the sun – you’ll also probably need to use far less to satisfy your tastebuds.
Kosher salt also tends to contain less additives, such as caking agents and iodine (found in table salt), although there’s little difference between this and table salt.
Also known as Kala Namak, black salt has a totally different appearance from what you’d imagine – it’s actually a brownish-grey colour and can change from greyish blue to light purple or pink when ground down.
Mined in India and Pakistan, this rock salt has a strong sulphuric smell and has become popular in vegan diets thanks to its “eggy” taste. It’s also widely-used in Southeast Asia to spice food.
Originally popular in France, Celtic salt – a type of sea salt - has a distinctive grey colour and a fairly moist texture, thanks to its high water content.
Like Himalayan Pink Salt, Celtic Salt also contains certain trace minerals, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron – although these are only very small percentages of this salt. It also has less sodium than any of the other types of salt we’ve talked about.
All in all, most salts are very similar in what they’re made from. However, since table salt is the most processed of them all, it’s best that you look for other options – and there are so many tastier, better choices on the market for you to try!
When adding salt to your food, just remember to sprinkle in moderation. It’s also worth trying to pick one with natural minerals - such as Celtic or Himalayan Salt – so that you’re getting extra nutrients in your dishes, however small those amounts will be.
Of course, that’s only our advice – feel free to take it with a pinch of salt…
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.