confessions of a salt-a-holic

Known as "Na" on the periodic table and "salt" on the kitchen table, sodium often gets a bad rap.  Restaurants are adding salt to their food, recipes tell you to subjectively ‘salt to taste’, major food companies pack their processed food full of salt, and a lot of us have salt on our dinner tables.  Why?  Because it awakens our taste buds, and subsequently elevates the flavor of the food.  I mean, it's basically magical.  Not to mention, it also helps to preserve food, protecting it from oxidation.  About five years ago, I never added salt to anything.  Then I met my chef boyfriend.  Now I add salt (and butter, but that's a later post) to everything. Good? Bad?  Well, let’s see.

Many of us learned in high school science that table salt is sodium chloride.  Sodium is an essential mineral that our bodies require in order to function properly.  (You might remember from an earlier post that anything ‘essential’ means our bodies don’t produce them and therefore have to be obtained from diet).  Sodium plays some vital roles in our bodies, particularly in our nerve and muscle function, fluid balance, and blood volume.  Even though it is a essential mineral, it's fairly easy to consume too much, which can lead to health problems, including hypertension (high blood pressure).

There are plenty of dietary sources of sodium, many of which are better than others, the most common being table salt.  Natural sources of sodium can be found in seafood, clean sources of beef and poultry, celery, beets, carrots, artichokes, kelp and other sea vegetables.  No whole, natural food, has a high sodium content. 

The bad news for us saltaholics is there is no physiological need for habitually adding salt or sodium to our food.  Given the roles it plays in the body, it might be helpful to use sodium in cases of dehydration due to excessive sweating, or vomiting or diarrhea, as well as for treatment of heatstroke and leg cramps.  For example, instead of drinking a sports drink to rehydrate, you could try drinking a pinch of pink Himalayan salt along with some lemon in a half litre of water mixed with half a litre of fresh fruit juice. 

The daily recommended dietary allowance of sodium is 1,500mg for both adult males and females, with a maximum intake level of 2,300 mg.  To put this into perspective, there are 2,300mg of sodium in one teaspoon of table salt.  A couple of other comparisons: one teaspoon of soy sauce provides approximately 290mg of sodium.  There are 230mg of sodium in 15 potato chips.  There is 25mg of sodium in a 750ml bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water.  It doesn’t take long to add up in one day, especially if we enjoy things like processed and packaged snack foods, packaged sauces and dressings, cheese, and cured deli meats.  Yet another reason why it’s so important to read labels, make choices, and get really curious about what we’re putting into our bodies. 

The North American diet makes it’s pretty tough to be sodium deficient.  However, under consuming sodium is also possible.  Symptoms of low sodium levels include decreased blood pressure and muscle cramps.  Other symptoms mimic that of sunstroke: nausea, vomiting, poor memory and concentration, circulatory collapse.  Excess sodium will present with high blood pressure and water retention.

We don’t often use table salt, unless we’re baking (baking soda has a lot of sodium in it too, by the way!).  Maldon sea salt and Kosher salt are both in stock in our home (fun fact: the name ‘kosher’ stems from the process the salt is intended for, i.e. koshering, or drawing blood out of meat, so that it meets the Judaic dietary laws).  Both Kosher and Maldon are popular choices with chefs because the large crystals salt large amounts of food and adhere to food better without totally dissolving.  This means that fewer salt crystals are used resulting in less sodium content.  Win win!  Of course, that’s only if your chef is measuring ;)  We tend to use sea salt a little more sparingly, as it’s a bit pricey due to the way it’s harvested.  It’s processed by taking sea water, storing it in small ponds and allowed to evaporate naturally.  After the water evaporates (this takes 1-5 years), the remaining salt is harvested.  We actually found some natural evaporated salt ponds camping in Tofino this summer, as you’ll see in the photo below. 

Personally, my absolute favorite is coarse ground pink Himalayan rock salt (try saying that five times fast).  I use the Organic Lives brand, but there are plenty of other great brands out there.  Another fun fact: the salt mines are not actually located in the Himalayas; in fact, they’re harvested approximately 1,000 miles away.  The salt mines were formed millions of years ago from waters that have never been exposed to impurities or environmental pollution.  Also, there are 84 minerals and trace elements available for absorption and utilization by the body, including sodium, calcium and magnesium, which make it one of the highest quality salts available.  Plus it has about a fifth less sodium than table salt, per teaspoon.  So yeah, I’m a big fan of the pink stuff!

We also have some lovely flavored rock salts that we picked up in a marché de plein-air in Nice, France a few years ago: a purple fig salt, a black Hawaiian salt, and a smoked salt.  These are great as a finishing touch on salad or seafood.  And of course, totally unnecessary.

If you’re trying to cut down on adding salt at the table, consider properly seasoning your food during the cooking stage, leaving you less likely to add more.  For example, add salt to your pasta water, or when you’re boiling potatoes or cooking rice, and consider pre-seasoning your meat or fish.

If you can’t live without it, (you’re preaching to the choir here), and want to add it at the table it’s important to consider that table, sea and kosher salts all contain the same amount of sodium, by weight.  However, because of the coarser grain of kosher and sea salts, they contain less sodium than table salt, by volume, versus your fine grain sea salts will have the same high-sodium content as table salt.  Hint: the coarser the better!  You’ll need to add less, to get the same effect.  Try to look for sea salts that contain iodine, too.  There is some controversy over iodized salt (table salt is iodized); however, iodine is also an essential mineral which is not conserved by our bodies. 

In closing, sodium is something that should not be totally avoided; we should simply be aware of what quality we’re consuming as well as the quantity.  You know what they say (whoever ‘they' are): keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.  

Stay curious,