Salt of the Earth
Eating Healthy Without Compromising Taste
Americans love the taste of salt, and most of us eat far too much of it. On average, we consume 10 grams daily, the amount in two teaspoons, and double the 5 grams per day recommended by the World Health Organization.
All of this mindless salt consumption is wreaking havoc with the nation’s health. A recent meta-study published in the British Medical Journal confirmed that high salt intake elevates blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Because it increases the amount of calcium we excrete in our urine, it also tends to weaken bones and make us more vulnerable to osteoporosis, according to research at the University of California, San Francisco.
Although table salt contains two elements—sodium and chlorine—it’s the sodium that’s responsible for most of the negative effects, which become worsened by the typically low levels of potassium in many diets.
“Sodium and potassium must be balanced for good health. Americans need to increase their potassium as much as they need to decrease their sodium,” advises nutrition specialist Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., a certified nutrition specialist and author of The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer. “Fortunately, fruits, vegetables and whole grains aren’t just low in sodium; they’re also rich in potassium.”
We can dramatically curb our salt consumption both by eating more plant foods and limiting processed foods, which account for an average 77 percent of our daily sodium intake. Another 12 percent occurs naturally in meats, grains and produce. Only about 11 percent comes from the salt shakers on our tables.
“If we cut back on foods that come out of cans and boxes with bar codes, we’d have more wiggle room with table salt,” says Bowden. Then, it’s vital to pick our salt wisely.
When used conservatively and creatively, finishing foods with natural salts can make nutritious eating more enjoyable. According to purveyors of natural salt products, these can deliver 50 or more trace minerals, including calcium, magnesium, potassium and iodine, all within the bounds of good taste.
“Good salt has a tremendous impact on the flavors of various foods,” explains Dave Joachim, author of The Science of Good Food and founder of Chef Salts, a line of premier seasoning blends. “It can intensify some flavors, including sweet and savory, or umami, while diminishing others, such as bitter and tart flavors. That’s why a salt rim on an organic margarita glass works so well—salt suppresses the tartness of the lime and brings out its subtle sweetness.”
With a mind-boggling variety of culinary salts available, choosing just the right one can be a challenge. “Each type of salt has unique qualities,” advises Joachim. “Differences in color, flavor, and texture are created by the mineral and moisture content of the salt, the size and shape of the crystals and even the harvesting methods used.”
Each also stands in stark contrast to common table salt, which is 99.7 percent sodium chloride that has been heat blasted, stripped of other minerals and chemically treated to re-infuse iodine content. Yes, iodine is essential for good health; it is important for the production of thyroid hormones and critical for pregnant women, observes Jim Roach, a medical doctor and founder of Midway Center for Integrative Medicine in Midway, Kentucky. He reports that as more people shy away from their old salt standby, “Americans are getting less iodine than 30 years ago.”
But another way to meet the body’s basic iodine needs is with natural salt, as well as sea vegetables such as kelp, wakame and nori, the seaweed used for making sushi. While remaining mindful of our overall sodium intake, we can take wide-ranging pleasure in experimenting with many varieties of natural salt.
Following are seven favorites that turn up time and again.
* Black salt or kala namak is a pearly, pink-grey mineral salt from India, characterized by a strong, sulfurous taste.
* Celtic sea salt, harvested from the salt flats of Northern France, is marked by a mellow flavor with a hint of sweetness; its crystals may be white, pink or grey.
* Fleur de sel, the “flower of salt,” is considered the premier quality grey sea salt, with fine crystals, a crisp texture and a delicate flavor and aroma.
* Grey salt, or sel gris, comes from evaporated sea water off the coast of Brittany, France; its unrefined crystals are purple-grey in color and have a fresh, light flavor.
* Hawaiian black lava salt comprises a blend of sea salt and volcanic charcoal, prized for its dramatic color and smoky flavor.
* Hawaiian red sea salt contains alaea, a volcanic clay that enriches the salt with iron oxide and gives it a distinctive pink color and mellow flavor.
* Himalayan salt, a full-flavored salt, has traces of iron that give its crystals a soft pink glow. Once a year, Nepali workers harvest this salt from an ancient fossilized seabed.
While savoring salt in sensible quantities, remember that, “We eat with our eyes, too,” says Joachim. “We can appreciate the beautiful crystal structures of the different kinds of salts. They’re astonishingly varied—large flakes and tiny grains; pyramids and delicate, flat chips. Like snowflakes, there’s an endless variety.”
Rallie McAllister is a medical doctor with master’s degrees in public health and environmental health. She publishes as an author, syndicated columnist and co-founder of MommyMDGuides.com, a free website providing tips from integrative physicians who are also mothers.