The sodium in salt is an essential nutrient that regulates blood pressure as well as muscle and nerve function. But it should be consumed only in moderation. High sodium consumption is linked to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is one of the leading causes of stroke. Studies also show links between high-salt diets and obesity, stomach cancer, asthma, and kidney stones. As well, researchers have found that high-salt diets are associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis, because sodium increases calcium excretion.
Unfortunately, Americans on average get much more sodium than they need—about 3,400 milligrams each day, more than twice the 1,500 milligrams recommended by the American Heart Association. (One teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium).
Iodine, which is added to table salt, enables the thyroid gland to manufacture thyroxine (a hormone that regulates metabolism), and promotes growth and development in fetuses and children. It also reduces the chance of developing thyroid gland problems such as goiter. But, points out Norm Campbell, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, goiter tends not to be a problem because our soils contain enough iodine, which is transferred to the fruit and vegetables we grow.
But it’s a fact that salt is a basic taste we’re hard-wired to detect—our tongue’s taste receptor cells can tune into salt just four months after we’re born. So it makes sense that it’s tough to shake the habit. For most people the majority of their sodium intake comes from processed foods. Cooking from scratch will help lower your salt intake (so long as you use it sparingly!), because it puts you in control of how much you add to your meal, says registered dietitian Carol Dombrow.
The Truth About Gourmet Salts
Is there a way to add only a little, but still be satisfied? Maybe: Food stores across North America are now stocking many varieties of specialty salts, in colors and textures that go way beyond the basics. Forget about the refined stuff in those little glass shakers; these exotic grains and flakes, often packaged in shiny tins and elegant glass bottles, can add crunch and texture to a dish. And the granules’ different sizes and shapes mean they dissolve at different rates on the tongue, so they can add bursts of flavor, or bring out a long, lingering one. At gourmet restaurants, you might find pink chunks of Himalayan salt sprinkled over pats of butter, or a dusting of grey fleur de sel clinging to bibb lettuce leaves.
Of course, specialty salts carry the same health consequences as regular table salt. So proceed with caution.
December 2011 issue of Best Health magazine