Integral to ancient religious practices, trade, politics and the growth of economies, salt has played key roles in social and cultural developments around the world throughout history. Salt maintains a significant presence in our lives today as a major player in diet and nutrition. Should we be eating salt? Is salt Paleo?
Nutritional Value of Salt
The following values are based on 1 teaspoon table salt
- Calories: 0
- Total Fat: 0
- Cholesterol: 0
- Carbohydrate: 0
- Protein: 0
- Fiber: 0
- Sodium: 2325 mg
Health Benefits of Salt
Salt is a compound of sodium and chloride. Both are electrolytes that regulate the volume of extracellular fluid and play roles in muscle and nerve function. However, of the two, sodium is far more fascinating and controversial. But before we get into the pros and cons of sodium consumption, let’s just talk about salt.
Salt is extracted from seas, lakes and oceans and mined from deposits found above and below ground. There are many different types of salt but they all fall into two categories: refined and unrefined. Refined salt varieties include common table salt and Kosher salt which is a larger grain than table salt suitable for koshering meat and all purpose cooking. Rock salt and sea salt may or may not be refined; you have to read labels to know.
Unrefined salt includes all varieties of rock and sea salt that have not been stripped of minerals or had ingredients added. The minerals in rock salt referred to as “impurities” sometimes impart exotic colors and flavors such as those found in Himalayan pink salt. The color and flavor of sea salt reflect variations in algae and mineral concentrations in the silt and clay local to the source of the salt. For instance, grey sea salt (Sel Gris) gets it’s grey color and slightly bitter taste from the minerals in the clay lining salt ponds in France and Hawaiian Alaea salt is unrefined sea salt with alaea clay infused during harvesting. After solar evaporation, sea salt retains trace levels of many minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. Sea salt is 55% chloride, 31% sodium and 15% mineral salts.
Refined salt is made from sea salt and rock salt that has been processed to remove all minerals except sodium and chloride. Ingredients are added including calcium silicate to prevent sticking and clumping and iodine to prevent goiters that result from iodine-deficiency, which prior to supplementation was common in certain areas of the United States. Stabilizers added to prevent degradation of the iodine include sodium bicarbonate, sodium thiosulfate or dextrose. Refined salt is 60% chloride and 40% sodium.
It is important to get enough iodine from food if you’re avoiding iodized salt. Iodine is found in sea vegetables, cranberries, potatoes, fish (particularly cod), seafood, and eggs.
As previously mentioned, the most controversial component of salt is sodium, a mineral essential for life. Sodium is essential for the proper functioning of muscles and nerves, pH balance, hydration and fluid balance outside of cells. Sodium enhances the flavor of food and during exercise sodium loading can improve performance. Under normal conditions, when excess sodium is consumed, water is retained resulting in an increase in blood pressure in sensitive people. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.
The typical American eats about 3,400 mg of sodium a day, (about 1.5 tsp) which comes mainly from processed foods. The RDA for sodium is less than 2,300 mg (1 teaspoon) a day or even less at 1,500 mg a day if you’re 51 or older, or if you are African American, or have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. Although reducing high sodium intakes has been shown to reduce blood pressure by a significant number of points and high sodium intakes are associated with osteoporosis, kidney stones, stomach cancer, stroke, Menierre’s Syndrome (ear ringing) motion sickness, asthma, and generalized inflammation, studies on the efficacy of salt reduction are mixed and it’s unclear if reducing salt to recommended levels is universally beneficial. In fact, it may even be harmful to some people.
Studies have shown that salt restriction is associated with insulin resistance, increased triglycerides and elevated stress hormones. Other studies have shown that sodium restriction leads to the very things it is supposed to decrease including risk for stroke and heart disease. A very large study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who consumed a moderate amount of sodium of between 3000 to 6000 mg/day were healthier than people who consumed either more than this or less, a conclusion that supports earlier research findings on the health effects of sodium consumption.
Seasonality of Salt – Where to Buy Salt
Some varieties of unrefined salt may be harvested seasonally with limited availability but most salt is available year round. You’ll be more likely to find exotic salts and unrefined options in natural food stores and large supermarkets as well as on-line.
Should I Eat Salt? Is Salt Paleo?
Unrefined salt is Paleo when consumed moderately, as when added to taste to a whole foods Paleo diet. Salt adds flavor and interest to food and evidence suggests that keeping sodium intake in a moderate range may lead to better health than you would have with a very low or very high sodium intake.
How much salt you decide to include in your diet ultimately depends on your individual preference for salt, your health status, the amount of exercise you do and the advise of your health practitioner.
Natural food sources of salt include sea vegetables, fish, shellfish, meat, celery, carrots, bell peppers, beets, spinach, broccoli, Bok Choy, artichokes, honeydew melon, and turnips.