Introducing … the “Debunking Myths” Series
I’m fed up. So many things touted as ‘healthy’ are in fact, responsible for robbing us of our health (ahem, low-fat yogurt, anyone?). So I’m launching a series. A lifelong series on My Life in a Pyramid, that I will call “Debunking Myths.” Every time I come across a health-related topic that is widely accepted by the general public as being true, even though it is in reality an unproven myth, I’ll write a post about it. If you follow me on Facebook, you can see a lot of the articles I read and share about health and nutrition, and a lot of them go against the conventional wisdom. A couple of days ago I posted a Harvard study I came across that explains the importance of a substance in dairy fat that can significantly lower the chance of getting Type 2 diabetes. (Yes, that means Paula Deen really should keep eating her butter, as long as it’s from pastured cows … but she should probably cut down or eliminate the refined carbohydrates and excess sugar). Politically incorrect recommendations (that go against conventional wisdom) are often scientifically correct!
The Myth that Sodium Is Bad
Let me tell you the problem: People want simple, easy answers. Either sodium is bad for health or it isn’t. Everyone wants to see the science. What do the studies say? Does salt increase blood pressure or does it not? Most people know what they’ve heard through media for the past 25 years: Sodium increases blood pressure and should be decreased in the diet … well, if you want to avoid heart disease and an early death. But what the media pundits, scientists, physicians, and statisticians don’t tell you is that the correlation isn’t that clear cut:
Consider, for example, the Intersalt study, one of the largest observational studies that medical journals cite to this day as being proof that there’s a strong relationship between salt in the diet and high blood pressure. The study, done in 1988, was based on a sample of 10,079 men and women aged 20-59 from 52 populations around the world. As renowned science writer Gary Taubes writes in this piece titled “The (Political) Science of Salt,” the results from the study (and many others before and after it) were not consistent, not significant and misrepresented. “In fact, the population that ate the most salt, about 14 grams a day, had a lower median blood pressure than the population that ate the least, about 7.2 grams a day” (Scientific American). The misrepresentation of the results happened in several ways. For the first edition of the study, the 20-29 age group had no difference in blood pressure from the high-salt diet, but this data was dropped from the conclusion because it did not support the scientists’ hypothesis.
Somehow, after statistical manipulation, the authors of the study concluded that the correlation between high-sodium intake and hypertension is a strong one. Misleading and unscientific? Yes. But does it mean that there is a correlation there or not? Possibly, but it has likely been exaggerated. Could it be that salt has little or no effect on blood pressure, and that blood pressure increases with age in those who live sedentary lives and eat an otherwise unhealthy diet? Could be. We’ll never find out because many of these studies can’t be controlled easily. Changing the amount of salt on the diet invariably leads to eating more fresh foods and dairy (the DASH diet)… which can be related to the decrease in blood pressure if a decrease is indeed observed. Generally, it’s extremely difficult in these kinds of studies to control or account for other variables and confounding factors in the diet or lifestyle.
According to this article by Joseph Mercola, there are many other studies that have failed to show any correlation between high-salt diets and cardiovascular diseases and deaths. In fact, some studies, like this one from 2011, have shown the inverse to be true!
Sodium is Necessary for Human Health
In other words, don’t wait for a study to prove that our bodies need salt. Basic science and human pathology show us that sodium is a necessary substance in our bodies, for a variety of vital functions:
- Taking nutrients in and out of your cells
- Regulating blood pressure
- Regulating nerve impulses
- Helping the brain and muscles communicate efficiently, so that your muscles can move on demand
- Proper thyroid and adrenal functioning
- Digestion of proteins and carbohydrates
- Maintaining electrolyte and osmotic balance
It probably has other functions that we are just beginning to discover, but the truth boils down to one fact: we cannot live without sodium. So, if we can’t live without sodium, it can’t be an evil substance. Water and oxygen are both things we cannot live without, but that doesn’t mean that more of them is always better. There is a limit and a balance to what we can consume without hurting our health. It’s the same for salt!
In fact, just as extremely high amounts of salt are damaging, several studies have shown that a diet too low in salt can be damaging for health. Here are a few of the effects of a too-low-salt diet:
- Increased risk of insulin resistance
- Higher risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular complications (and here’s another study with similar results from 2011)
- Large bone fracture in elderly patients
- Mood fluctuations (unrefined mineral salt is a natural antidepressant)
So How Much Sodium Does the Body Need to Function Optimally?
This remains up for debate, but based on some of the latest research, somewhere between 9 and 18 grams a day is recommended by the WAPF and The Salt Institute, except for those who are salt-sensitive. WAPF publicist and health food blogger Kimberly Hartke shares Sally Fallon’s answer and Morton Satin’s answer (of The Salt Institute) to the question “How much salt should you eat?”
“Yes, our consumption prior to the ‘50s was around 18 grams salt (almost 3 teaspoons) per day because salt was the primary means of food preservation. As refrigeration quickly took over that function after WWII, by the end of the 50s, our consumption dropped to approximately 9 grams (1-1/2 teaspoons) of salt per day and has remained there ever since. [...] And, in fact, the latest study (JAMA Dec 2011) by O’Donnel et shows the dose-response curve and indicates that the area of lowest risk to negative health outcomes is between 9 and 18 grams of salt (equivalent to 3,450 – 7,000 mg sodium per day, or between 1-1/2 to 3 teaspoons salt daily). Anything below or above that range poses a much higher risk to health” (Hartke is Online).
The FDA has been on a mission to significantly reduce sodium concentration in foods for the past few years. There is even talk about using an untested salt substitute from the biotech company Senomyx to mask the blandness of foods without adequate salt seasoning. This substitute falls under the “flavors” category, so it’s not required to be specifically labelled on foods. The Weston A. Price Foundation has warned the FDA in a press release, that changing the dietary guidelines to reduce salt for the entire population (and not just for the salt-sensitive minority) can have negative implications on the health of many. The Salt Institute’s Morton Satin discusses some of the implications of a low-salt diet on health, in a statement on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. This detailed article from Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston Price Foundation explains why we need salt, and discusses some of the mix-ups that have led may to believe in the myth that sodium is inherently an evil substance.
I believe that the body self-regulates. If you end up eating too much salt, your body will tell you. You might feel excessively thirsty, bloated (fluid retention), irritable, or feel lethargic. If you eat too little salt, you might start craving salty foods, and feeling fatigue, headache, muscle cramping, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. Make sure to listen to your body in each case, and respond accordingly.
Here’s the Caveat: The Quality Makes All the Difference
I’ve known for a while now that — despite what doctors and conventional nutritionists will tell you — the quality of a real food determines whether or not it’s healthy or unhealthy; not the type of real food itself. Consider the egg. Not all of them are created equally. The nutritional profile of a truly pastured, cage-free egg is completely different (and looks different!) than that of an “organic” store-bought egg or even a factory-farmed egg from an abused and antibiotic-pumped hen. It’s the same with salt, and virtually every other real food (and by real food, I mean foods found in nature, not those manufactured in a lab).
The problem is that sodium (and it’s derivatives) is found in excess in a lot of processed and pre-packaged foods, and most people eat a lot of those unhealthy foods. I’m not going to be discussing the danger of processed foods, because you should know by now they are not real foods and can’t be digested properly by the body. Also, it’s important to note that these processed junk foods are full of refined salt. “What, so there are differences in salt quality too?” you may be wondering. Oh yeah! Not all salts are created equally!
Like all industrial foods, commercial table salt undergoes a whole lot of processing. It’s heated to upwards of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, bleached with toxic solvents and ferro cyanide and aluminum to make it white, thereby stripping it of its minerals, and then mixed with anti-caking agents and free-flowing agents to keep it from sticking together. Oh, and then iodide — one synthetic nutrient — is added on because back in the 1920s they found that otherwise, people get iodine-deficiency, resulting in goiter. The problem is that this iodine in processed salt isn’t enough for the body, as seen in a study published in 2008, which found that a lot of Americans are still iodine-deficient.
What you probably don’t know is that this heating, bleaching and processing with other chemicals end up stripping the natural salt from many other minerals that our body needs like calcium, potassium, copper, sulfate, iodine (hah! It’s found naturally in the real stuff), iron, manganese, magnesium, silicon, phosphorus, vanadium and zinc (Mercola). In fact, the processing only leaves the sodium and chloride, which amount to 97%-99% of table salt ingredients. Unrefined salts contain about 85% sodium, and the rest is composed of other minerals and trace elements.
In many unrefined salts, you can see the color that the minerals impart – the salts of the earth are as colorful as many other foods, with some being gray, red, brown, black and even pink! Many people nowadays are deficient in these nutrients, because the salt they are adding to their foods is a processed product, and because many of even the fresh vegetables and fruits we are consuming are grown in nutrient-deficient soils (the chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides tend to do that). Additionally, a processed-foods diet has made most people magnesium-deficient. Unrefined mineral salt is an excellent source of magnesium, and according to Lawrence Wilson,
“The blood pressure-raising effect of table salt can be due to its high content of sodium with not enough magnesium to balance it. This has a magnesium-lowering effect that can constrict the arteries and raise blood pressure. Sea salt contains plenty of magnesium, which is why it usually does not affect blood pressure at all, or does so much than table salt and should be eaten by most people. Also, if one’s magnesium status is adequate because one has other food sources of magnesium, salt-eating will have less effect or no effect on blood pressure.”
The solution then is not to throw up your hands in the air and say ‘the heck with it’. There’s a much better solution: buy unrefined mineral salt! Yes, these salts exist. There are a few salt companies out there that are producing salt the old-fashioned way. The company I use (and it’s pretty economical as their prices aren’t staggeringly expensive) is called SaltWorks. So far, I’ve only tried their Himalayan Pink Sea Salt, and I usually buy it in bulk. Only $19 for a 5 lb. bag (often with free shipping) is a great deal, especially as compared to the prices I’ve seen in health food stores! There are many fusion salts (salt infused with other ingredients, like balsamic vinegar or chili peppers) on SaltWorks, but I prefer to buy the pure varieties so it doesn’t impact the taste of the different meals I prepare.
Another company I’ve used before is HimalaSalt. I bought a small shaker of the stuff from Whole Foods to try it out a while back, and it tasted great, but was more expensive than the SaltWorks version. This is what HimalaSalt has to say about refined salt on their website:
Common Table Salt is an industrial by-product, stripped by chemical processing of all elements except sodium and chloride – detrimental to health in isolated form. Anti-caking and flow agents are added, yet the FDA Code 21CFR101.100(a)(3), does not require their disclosure to consumers. Table salt comes from the same lots as vacuum-refined industrial salt and is treated with caustic soda or lime to remove all traces of magnesium salts, which are important for health.
Important minerals are removed because they provide large corporations with staggering profits for use in agricultural and industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, ammunitions, and other unsustainable industries.
After extreme chemical processing and heated at up to 1200 degrees, table salt cannot support health and no longer combines with our body fluids. Table salt can also cause a deficiency of important essential trace minerals, which are abundantly present in HimalaSalt.
If you’re in the United States, and looking for something more local than Himalayan salt (which is usually harvested in Pakistan), there’s a company called Redmond’s Real Salt in Utah that uses traditional harvesting methods to produce unrefined mineral salt. I haven’t yet tried it myself, but a few fellow bloggers who live in the U.S. have tried it and rave about it! In this brochure, Redmond’s Real Salt promotes the use of most unrefined mineral salts including both Himalayan salt and Celtic salt, but describes the Real salt brand as “sweeter”, as compared to the Himalayan salt which is more “earthy”. I’m looking forward to trying the Real brand soon! I’ll be sure to report back on any difference in taste …
Don’t Be Fooled by the Word “Sea” in Front of Your Salt
As Emily of Butter Believer warns us in her post about salt, the word “sea” in front of salt is not enough to ensure that you’re not buying refined and processed salt. Since all salt is technically “from the sea”, many manufacturers use the qualifier ”sea” liberally (and deceptively) to describe their salt, even though it’s the same processed salt — only coarser. It is not the coarseness of the grain that matters; it’s the processing the salt undergoes. So, yes, sorry to all my Costco-loving friends, but the Kirkland “Mediterranean Sea” Salt is NOT the unrefined mineral salt I’ve described above. Don’t buy it!
How I Use Himalayan Sea Salt
Since becoming a convert to using real unrefined mineral salt, I’ve only tried the Himalayan salt, though I plan to vary it up a bit to get other minerals that may not be found in this variety. Himalayan salt comes from the Himalayas, so it’s fairly pure and free from most environmental toxins. It also doesn’t have any additives. Here are a few things to keep in mind when using unrefined mineral salts:
- Unrefined salts are not as salty as table salt. They contain less sodium chloride and more minerals. I use the same amount of salt as when I previously used table salt, and I’m enjoying the more natural and subdued taste of unrefined salt.
- Himalayan salt comes in degrees of coarseness ranging from extra course grain, to fine grain (I buy the fine grain because it’s more convenient). There are even slabs of salt that many people use as a cooking surface to impart a delicate salty (but not at all overpowering) flavor. I’ve never tried, but many say that these salt slabs distribute heat evenly and aid in precise cooking. Check out this post from My So-Called Knife, where Liam shows us how to use a Himalayan salt slab for grilling! Yum!
- Himalayan Sea Salt can also be used topically in bath soaks, to treat skin conditions, as a sinus flush, or as a throat gargle (Mercola).
So that’s it for my first post of debunking myths. Don’t be afraid of high-quality unrefined mineral salt. Listen to your body, and remember to take most conventional health advice with several grains of salt!
P.S. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter, to receive these posts right to your email inbox! Simply enter your email address in the “Sign up” field on the right of this page. Thanks a bunch!