There was a time when salt was literally worth its weight in gold - and quite rightly too.
Without salt, life would cease. Your muscles would not function, your ability to think would be impaired, your memory would fail and your heart would stop.
Prior to industrialisation, salt was hard to come by and therefore valuable. Entire economies were based on its production and trade, wars were fought over it and it was even used as currency in some civilisations. Aside from economics, salt has cultural and religious significance: It was used to purify people and objects as an offering to seal covenants and to repel evil.
Today, salt is produced on a huge scale by either mining or by extraction from oceans and saline lakes. This makes it much cheaper and more readily available and as a result, it’s being added to our foods in increasing amounts.
Although table salt, sea salt and rock salts contain similar quantities of sodium, unrefined salts whether mined from the earth or harvested from the sea, contain a broad spectrum of trace elements. These include magnesium and potassium which work with sodium to regulate water balance and nerve and muscle impulses. The more sodium you eat, the more potassium and magnesium you need to maintain balance. Few of us get enough of these elements in our diets, yet we eat high amounts of sodium in salt.
Refined industrial grade table salt on the other hand has had all of these trace elements removed. It is pure sodium chloride with an anti-caking agent and, in some cases, iodine added in. Only seven per cent of the salt produced goes for food; the other 93 per cent goes to industry. This requires chemically pure sodium chloride for the manufacture of explosives, chlorine gas, baking soda, fertilisers and plastics.
As with everything you put in your body, it is worth being both inquisitive and demanding when it comes to salt choices. Better choices may include rock salt and sea salt – as long as they are unrefined. Unrefined salt is generally not the pure white colour that most of us are used to. It tends to be off-white, pink or grey. The colours hint at the minerals within. In fact, genuinely unrefined rock salt can contain more than 90 different trace elements.
Although our bodies need some sodium, too much can overwhelm our bodies. Our kidneys naturally balance the amount of sodium stored in the body for optimal health, but too much sodium may put pressure on the kidneys and lead to fluid retention and increased blood pressure.
According to the Food Standards Agency a target daily intake of salt is: 0 - 12 months old - less than 1g per day; 1 to 3 years - 2g per day; 4 to 6 years - 3g per day; 7 to 10 years - 5g per day; 11 and over - 6g per day (about 1 teaspoon)
Most adults consume around 8-10g of salt (about 2 teaspoons) daily without realising it. As much as 75% of a person’s dietary intake of salt comes from processed food such as bread, breakfast cereals and pastry products. Sodium is also added to various food products as monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrite, sodium saccharin, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and sodium benzoate.
Most food labels do not show how much salt is in a product; it is often listed as ‘sodium’, which must be multiplied by 2.5 to give the amount of actual salt.
To cut back on sodium:
Eat more fresh foods. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. Also, fresh meat is lower in sodium than are luncheon meat, bacon, hot dogs, sausages and ham. Buy fresh or frozen poultry or meat that hasn’t been injected with a sodium-containing solution. Look on the label or ask your butcher.
Opt for low-sodium products. If you do buy processed foods, choose those that are labelled “low sodium.” Better yet, buy plain whole-grain rice and pasta instead of ones with added seasonings.
Remove salt from recipes whenever possible. You can leave out the salt in many recipes, including casseroles, soups, stews and other main dishes that you cook.
Limit use of sodium-laden condiments. Soy sauce, salad dressings, sauces, dips, ketchup, mustard and relish all contain sodium.
Use herbs, spices and other flavorings to season foods. Use fresh or dried herbs, spices, zest from citrus fruit, and fruit juices to jazz up your meals.
Go low and take it slow
Your taste for salt is acquired, so you can learn to enjoy less. Decrease your use of salt gradually and your taste buds will adjust.
After a few weeks of cutting back on salt, you probably won’t miss it, and some foods may even taste too salty. Start by using no more than 1/4 teaspoon of salt daily — at the table and in cooking. As you use less salt, your preference for it diminishes allowing you to enjoy the taste of the food itself, with heart-healthy benefits.
Sophie Driver is a nutritional therapist consulting from the The Wellhead Practice in Abbey Road, Bourne. To find out more about what Sophie and her colleagues can help you with, visit www.thewellheadpractice.co.uk or call 01778 392832.