There has never been any debate over sodium chloride’s (to use salts technical name) importance in overall health and well being. Sodium is integral to countless bodily functions including osmoregulation (fluid regulation in the body), hydration and controlling the beat of your heart. If sodium levels are inadequate, a process known as ion exchange fails to work as it should. Ion exchange occurs between sodium and potassium, if this process is hindered the heart may fail to reach what’s known as an action potential, consequently your heart will not beat as it should! ‘Action potentials’ as they are known are just one of the many roles sodium plays in the body, so it’s important that we recognise that sodium, and indeed dietary salt is important to health and well being.
What is meant by ‘dietary salt’?
The sodium chloride that I discussed above is a compound of sodium and chloride. These substances can be ingested via isotonic drinks etc in their individual state, or they can be sprinkled on chips etc as a compound of sodium and chloride known as table salt. Dietary salt therefore refers to the ingestion of ‘salt’ as we know it via food and drink.
Bad press surrounding dietary salt
It’s no secret that salt gets some stick, and the reason for this is mainly because of its part in osmoregulation and thus blood pressure. An excessive intake of salt has been found to increase fluid retention thus increasing blood pressure, consequently the public were advised to ‘avoid salt’ or ‘avoid added salt’ and even, get this, to ‘cut all salt out of your diet’. Granted you won’t have heard a registered Dietitian advise this (at least not a Dietitian that warrants their registration), I refer to unqualified advisors who make a living out of jumping on the proverbial ‘band wagon’ for anything to do with salt and health! Dietary salt has been blamed for the world wide rise in blood pressure, for increased risk of heart disease and for rising cases of renal failure, when most of the time it’s obesity that’s to blame. Dietary salt has been largely sidelined from many peoples diets because of this bad press. Restricting added salt may be wise if you are overweight, have high blood pressure or if you have an underlying kidney issue, after all, 75% of the salt we eat is already added to everyday foods! However, problems may arise if athletes start restricting or (worse still) cutting salt out of their diet! Electrolyte balance is integral, but particularly in sport because of the excessive rate of sweating that accompanies intense bouts of physical activity. Reducing salt in athletes may expose them to cramping, reduced muscle contractility, lessened cognitive function (due to reduced activity of the glial cells in your brain) and arrhythmias (irregular heart rate).
Salt is salt…right!?
Lets get this straight, salt is bad for you if its in its natural form, the problem is sourcing the natural stuff and knowing how much to have. Yes, an excessive intake of any salt (natural or processed) will increase blood pressure, and yes, this increases your risk of heart disease and stroke…But not all salts were made equal, and here’s why: Table salt has next to nothing in common with natural salt. Processed salt such as the stuff you might sprinkle over your food in a cheap café, or the salt added to processed meals is around 98% sodium chloride…this is fine, but the remaining 2% comprises man made chemicals including moisture absorbents and some added iodine.
Most of the time these added chemicals include ferrocyanide (anti-caking agent) and aluminosilicate, which are permitted for human consumption by the European Commission BUT aren’t natural, so begs the question ‘why are we consuming them’? Natural salt is best every time as it’s 84% sodium chloride, with the remaining 16% consisting of the naturally occurring minerals such as the trace elements silicon, phosphorous and vanadium. Opting for the pure, unrefined version of any foodstuff/ additive is always best if you can, and this especially goes for salt. Himalayan sea salt is without doubt one of the most sought after salts for its high mineral content due to thousands of years of maturation under tectonic pressure, well away from additives and impurities. Better still, Himalayan salt is hand mined, washed, and undergoes the absolute minimum processing. Specifically, Himalayan salt is 85% sodium chloride with the remainder comprising 84 different trace minerals. You might also be able to source some natural sea salt from health stores, my personal favourite is Essex’s very own Maldon sea salt.
So how do you get the balance right?
Current salt guidelines have recently been assessed and have been set at around 5-6g per day. You can use food labels to give you an idea as to what constitutes a ‘lot’, or indeed a ‘little’ salt: High salt is more than 1.5g salt per 100g (equivalent of 0.6g sodium), low is 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium). This gives you an idea of how much salt to have, so if you have to opt for a processed food then be sure it has less than 1g of salt per 100g. Remember that moderation is key, so a high salt indulgence isn’t the end of the world, but do this too often and the repercussions could be serious…whether the salt is processed or natural! As a rule though, the easiest way to avoid an excessive salt intake is to avoid processed and ready meals which are usually high in sodium and yet low in potassium. Keep your diet varied and balanced, and should you wish to add salt at all, keep it NATURAL!
NHS Choices, (2014). Salt: The facts. Retrieved 23rd June, 2014, from http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/salt.aspx