“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”
Salt is something that humans have always consumed as part of a healthy diet. Unfortunately, claims that it contributes to heart disease and increases blood pressure have left many people afraid to use salt. While it’s true that too much sodium (like too much of anything) can lead to adverse health effects, it’s inaccurate to think of salt as something that’s “bad for us”. The truth is that salt is essential to life, and our bodies need a constant supply of it. Most salt that people use is of very poor quality and is certainly not the best representation of all that salt has to offer. Instead of being wary of using salt, I think we have more to gain by beginning to use quality salt in a way that contributes to our health.
Here are just a few of salt’s major functions in our bodies:
- Salt plays a crucial role in regulating and maintaining our body fluids1
- Salt is necessary for adequate tissue perfusion and normal cellular metabolism2
- Salt is alkalizing and keeps our body’s pH within a healthy range. This is a fancy way of saying that salt is a part of the process that keeps our blood acidity in check.
- Salt facilitates nerve conduction and muscle contraction (which is especially important for regulating our heart beat)3
- Salt activates enzymes, and aids digestion and absorption of other nutrients3
What does good quality salt consist of exactly? So, salt is necessary. I think we hammered that home enough. And too much is bad for us. This is still common knowledge. So what now? I’m glad you asked! We’re missing out on one of the most important aspects of salt: trace minerals. Quality salt has the most trace minerals. That’s it. Hands down. It’s all about the trace minerals. This small part of the composition of salt has a big impact on your body.
Let’s talk composition. All salt is made from evaporated seawater whether it comes from ancient underground salt deposits or straight from the ocean. What remains after the water has evaporated is a thin brown/grey layer of trace minerals (about 2% of salt) under a pure white layer of crystal salt on top (98% sodium chloride). Ideally, both of these layers would make it into our saltshaker. Unfortunately, the bottom layer of trace minerals is often missing, even in products labeled “sea salt”. This is the reason the salt crystals are pure white. Sea salts that include trace minerals are brown or grey (maybe even pink), depending on where they come from.
This is the sea salt you want! Again there is a parallel between quality salt and quality veggie intake: Eat the rainbow! The more colors on your plate, or saltshaker, the better.
Why do we want trace minerals? We’ve all heard of trace minerals such as potassium, calcium, sulphur, manganese, zinc, copper, and maybe even cobalt. There are as many as 82 trace minerals present in quality salt, and only about 30 of them have known uses in the body. There is still a lot we don’t understand about how trace minerals are used. What we do know is that many of them play crucial roles in our body’s cell regulation, bone health, and immunity. Trace minerals also act as coenzymes, which is another technical term explaining that some trace minerals initiate biochemical processes like metabolizing carbohydrates.3
Trace minerals are present in food as well as in salt, hence the importance of eating a well balanced and nutrient-rich diet. One difference between the minerals found in food versus those found in salt is that the minerals in salt are easier for the body to absorb than minerals from food. This is because minerals from salt simply dissolve in the body and easily become necessary electrolytes. This is the form minerals need to be in for the body to use them. Minerals in our foods, on the other hand, are chelated (or bound by a large molecule). The chelate needs to first release the mineral before it can become ionized (turned into an electrolyte) and absorbed in the gut. Factors such as insufficient hydrochloric acid in the stomach or abnormal pH in the digestive tract often lead to chelates not releasing the minerals. If the chelates cannot release the minerals the body is unable to absorb them.3
Another major reason trace minerals are not as available via foods is that our foods aren’t as rich in minerals as they once were due to mineral-depletion of the soil they’re grown in. This could be an article within itself, but suffice it to say that while the agriculture industry has increased the production of food, the nutrient content within our food has declined.4 Using salts to supplement the minerals that foods lack can help to make up the difference.
Why is salt important post-exercise? We talked about how salt is dissolved in the body and how minerals become electrolytes that carry an electrical charge. These charges work together in different biochemical pathways to regulate the flow of water in and out of cells, maintain fluid balance, and facilitate muscle contraction and neural activity. We all know that when we sweat, we lose water and electrolytes and it’s crucial to replace them.
This is where the sports drinks come in, right? Well, it just so happens that good quality salt provides electrolytes in the ratios our body needs in post-exercise recovery. Sodium and chloride are lost in the highest concentrations when we sweat, and are provided in the highest concentrations in salt. Potassium, magnesium and calcium are the trace minerals that are lost in the highest concentrations when we sweat, and they too are among the highest concentrations of trace minerals in high quality salt. So, you can actually make your own electrolyte-filled “sports drink” by mixing a pinch of quality salt with water and a splash of lemon or orange juice. This way you can also avoid all the additives that are included in today’s sports drinks.
Conclusion: all salt is not created equal. Table salt is sea salt that has been purified, refined, and bleached, leaving no trace minerals. Sodium and chloride are the only minerals that remain and iodine is later replaced in the form of potassium iodide because it’s crucial for thyroid function. Anti-caking agents like sodium silicoaluminate, sodium bicarbonate, and calcium silicate are also added to keep the salt from clumping together. There are claims that some anti-caking agents have adverse heath effects. I did not look into these claims but feel that for myself and my family I’d much rather have salt that tends to clump than have ingredients like sodium silicoaluminate in my salt. Like every other food, I want it to be composed of only what it is naturally composed of. I want my salt just as unmanufactured as I want my meat and vegetables. Finally, dextrose is sugar that’s added to stabilize iodine.3 Yes, even sugar is added to many salts on the market!
As I mentioned, quality salt will have flecks of color scattered within the grains or simply be a different color altogether (usually grey, pink, or brown) due to its trace mineral content. The package will also list the trace minerals that it contains. It may not list them all but it should list at least some. The greater the variety of minerals, the better the salt. Remember: Eat the rainbow. Unfortunately, most grocery stores do not carry quality salt. Health food stores as well as your higher quality food store usually carry at least one, if not several, brands of quality salt.
At this point I’ve probably proved far more information on salt than you ever wanted. For me, going with the unrefined stuff is the way to go. I want those trace minerals and I don’t want an over-processed salt. But try it for yourself and see what you think. I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about it’s taste (yes, it’s slightly different than table salt), and you may even find that a little goes a long way and some of your worries about salt may find their way to the trash along with your old saltshaker!
Take care and be well.
1. Logan, AG. Dietary Sodium Intake and Its Relation to Human Health: A Summary of the Evidence. Journal of American Nutrition. 2006; 25: 165-169.
2. Pitchford, P. Healing with Whole Foods. 2002.
3. Fallon S, Enig MG. Nourshing Traditions. 2001.
4. Davis DR, Epp MD, Riordan HD. Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999. Journal American College of Nutrition. 2004; Dec;23 (6):669-82.