Mainely Tipping Points 38: January 23, 2012
PLEASE PASS THE SALT
If you were to make me choose between sugar and salt, I’d choose salt every time. I’m almost always the first one at the table to say “please pass the salt.”
I like to think I inherited my salt-loving tendency from my maternal grandmother—Louise Phillips Bryan of Reynolds, Georgia. So, when the salt wars began in the 1970s—that time when many of the false, unscientific notions about food and body chemistry took root–I didn’t pay a bit of attention. Grandmother lived to be ninety and ate mostly local, nutrient-dense food. She ate fried bacon nearly every morning alongside her three (small) buttered pancakes, with, if she had it, homemade blackberry jam. If not, she had locally made cane syrup, whose molasses-like pungency can curl your toes.
I think Grandmother would have lived much longer if she hadn’t taken—apparently largely unsupervised– an early form of an estrogen replacement supplement. Like many women of that time, she was told that post-menopausal estrogen would help keep her facial skin supple. She died of uterine cancer.
So, given all the ongoing warnings about the dangers of salt, imagine my delight at discovering in just the past few years that there is a real salt that’s full of good-for-you minerals. It’s that reasonably priced grey, wet “Celtic” salt that can be found in our local coops (cooperative membership stores) and, sometimes, in expensive, small jars in mainstream grocery stores. (The pricy, pink Himalayan salts are also ok, but are mined, so some of the nutrients are long-gone. Nothing beats the barely processed, grey Celtic-type salt for overall health benefits.)
The first versions of this Celtic-type salt came from the coast of Brittany, in France; thus, the “Celtic” name association. According to Sally Fallon Morell and Mary Enig, PhD, in NOURISHING TRADITIONS, this real salt contains about 82 percent sodium chloride; 14 percent macro-minerals, “particularly magnesium”; and “nearly 80 trace minerals,” including “organic iodine from the minute bits of plant life that are preserved in the moist Celtic sea salt” (48-49).
This Celtic-type salt is also made in Maine, up near Machias, by the Maine Sea Salt Company. Owner Stephen C. Cook evaporates salt water in solar houses without added heat. He advertises that he never heats this water to speed up the process and never uses drying agents. He makes both the grey Celtic salt and a whiter, drier salt which might be more processed in that the water might be heated before going into the solar house. One warning: real salt attracts moisture, so store it in a covered container or a salt pig.
I’m finding that this Celtic-type salt is really salty—a little goes a long way. And, as my taste buds have welcomed real salt, I’m also finding that “pouring” fake salt with added iodine is not very—well–salty.
White sea salt has usually been highly processed with both heat and chemicals, which kills its nutrients, including the natural iodine salts. White sea salt is probably better than “pouring” salt because it isn’t a fake salt and it does not contain additives. But, be sure to check the label. It is, however, a dead food.
“Pouring” salt is a fake salt. Morell and Enig explain that potassium iodide is added in amounts “that can be toxic”–in order “to replace the natural iodine salts removed during processing.” Additives, including dangerous aluminum compounds, are added to enable the “pouring.” Dextrose is added to “stabilize the volatile iodide compound,” which turns the mixture purple, so a bleaching agent is used to turn the “salt” white again (48-49).
Morell and Enig write that the iodine in iodized salt is an inorganic version that can cause thyroid problems if used in excess. And they note further that certain vegetables, like cabbage and spinach, can block iodine absorption. In addition to Celtic-type salt, we also get iodine from “sea weeds, fish broth, butter, pineapple, artichokes, asparagus and dark green vegetables.” Morell and Enig also caution that one needs “sufficient levels of vitamin A, supplied by animal fats” to properly utilize ingested iodine. Among the signs of iodine deficiency are muscle cramps and cold hands and feet (44).
Salt is a powerful preservative. It’s also a powerful enzyme activator. Morell and Enig write that Dr. Edward Howell, the noted enzyme researcher whose work I’ve referenced in earlier essays, observed that those whose diets are composed almost entirely of raw foods, like the Eskimos, do not need much salt; but those who subsist on a diet composed largely of cooked foods, like the Chinese, require greater amounts of salt to activate enzymes in the intestines” (48).
Howell’s observation resonates with the growing body of knowledge that links much of our health to how well our gut is functioning. Anyway, Howell’s observation probably explains why I feel the need to salt the cooked foods I eat and don’t put much salt on salad. Probably, we each have already found our own salt balances and sensitivities—unless we have been needlessly terrified about salt consumption.
Morell and Enig note that early research showed a correlation between salt and high-blood pressure. But, correlation is not causation. And, indeed, subsequent research, including a “large study conducted in 1983 [Robert A. Holden et al] and published in the July 15, 1983, Journal of the American Medical Association, found that dietary salt did not have any significant effect on blood pressure in the majority of people. In some cases, salt restriction actually raised blood pressure.”
Since 1983, many studies have demonstrated not only that there are no benefits to a low-sodium diet, but that, as Morell notes in “The Salt of the Earth,” in the Summer 2011 “Wise Traditions,” which is available online, “lower sodium is associated with higher mortality.” Major studies vindicating salt are listed in a sidebar article (“More Studies Vindicating Salt”). Morell cites a 2010 “government-funded study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association” which found that “even modest reductions in salt intake are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death.”
The Weston A. Price Foundation folks are very worried about our government’s unscientific low-sodium position. In “The Salt of the Earth,” Fallon writes that salt is “vital to health” and that there is no viable substitute. The human body’s “interior is salty, and without salt the myriad chemical reactions that support enzyme function, energy production, hormone production, protein transport and many other biochemical processes simply can’t work.”
Anecdotally, I can tell you that one of our family members fell prey to the low-sodium demonization of salt. She landed up in the hospital in a lock-down ward because she could not distinguish reality from her hallucinations and bad dreams and was utterly terrified. With restored salt levels, she reclaimed her sanity in short order.
Fallon explains that though our bodies require “salt concentrations in the blood to be kept constant,” Western people today “consume about half the amount of salt that they consumed traditionally.” Real salt, writes Fallon, “provides two elements that are essential for life and for good health: sodium and chloride ions.” Neither can be manufactured by the body, so must be obtained from food. Sodium is present in a variety of foods, but chloride ions can only be obtained from salt.
So, why do our government’s 2010 food guidelines lower salt from 6 grams to 3.5 grams—which is less than the one teaspoon of our absolute daily salt requirement? And why are food companies not objecting, since they rely on salt for flavor? Perhaps it’s because a fake chemical salt is being readied to enter the market.