In the wake of the rise in high blood pressure and diabetes, it's natural to look for the enemy. Because of that, salt has faced some serious scrutiny lately. But, really, just how bad is salt for you? Like most things in life, moderation is key. No, you shouldn't be emptying your salt shaker at every meal. But you also shouldn't throw that salt shaker away. So why not give salt a chance before assuming it's one of the greatest dietary evils of our time? Here are eight facts about salt that may surprise you.
1. Your body needs salt.
Sodium and salt are often used interchangeably, but they're not the same thing. Sodium is a mineral that, when combined with chloride, forms salt. Salt, which is about 40-percent sodium, has a fairly bad reputation. But our bodies need salt. It helps with normal cell function, maintenance of blood volume and sending nerve impulses throughout your body — and may even act as an antidepressant. And it turns out that your body is pretty good at naturally regulating salt levels by making you thirsty and causing you to drink water.
2. Some sodium is natural.
Sodium is in the soil and in the plants animals eat, so some foods have a small amount of naturally occurring sodium. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a half-cup of cooked beets will provide 65 milligrams of sodium, a medium stalk of celery has 32 milligrams and eight baby carrots will give you approximately 69 milligrams. Animal products also contain sodium. Three ounces of cooked ground beef provides 72 milligrams sodium, and the same amount of cooked boneless chicken breast will add 44 milligrams of sodium.
3. There are a variety of types of salts.
Salt has recently entered into the world of food trends with unrefined salts like Himalayan pink salt, sel gris, flake salt and fleur de Sel. The process for extracting each type of salt can vary widely and has an impact on availability and price.
Himalayan pink salt, for instance, comes from rock crystals from the Himalayas (hence the name) near Pakistan and gets its color from the minerals it contains: magnesium, potassium and calcium. Fleur de sel, on the other hand, is a delicate, flaky sea salt that forms on seawater as it evaporates. And sel gris is a type of French sea salt that's coarse and granular.
4. But salt is salt.
Despite the many different kinds of salts, at the end of the day they're all pretty much the same nutritionally. Although salt manufacturers promote the mineral content in unrefined salt, you'd have to consume a huge amount in order to gain those health benefits, which isn't recommended.
Table salt and minimally processed salts, such as sea salt, don't differ very much in their sodium content. You may also have heard that table salt is also fortified with iodine, which is a nutrient essential to produce thyroid hormones. But Harvard Medical School says that cutting back on salt intake won't negatively affect iodine intake, as other sources include eggs, milk and yogurt.
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5. Some people are sensitive to salt.
If you're wondering why some people can eat all the salty foods they want and still have normal blood pressure, but you just look at potato chips and your blood pressure soars, salt sensitivity may be the culprit. Those who experience a rise or fall in blood pressure in response to salt intake are classified as salt sensitive. And those who don't are salt resistant.
According to the American Heart Association, salt sensitivity is based on genetics or defects in kidney function. It's especially common in older adults, African-Americans, those with diabetes or chronic kidney disease and those with naturally higher blood pressure. However, your salt sensitivity can change over time, so it's important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
6. Not all salts measure equally.
Recipes often call for adding salt. Depending on which type of salt the recipe writer used, you may be getting too much or not enough. Table salt, for example, is highly processed into a fine granule and is usually the standard for measurements in recipes. However, larger-flake salts, such as kosher salt and sea salt, are becoming more popular in cooking and do not measure equally to table salt. For example, one teaspoon of table salt is equal to 1.25 teaspoons of kosher salt. Pay attention to the type of salt indicated in the recipe in order for your recipes to taste right.
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7. Sodium is hiding in some surprising places.
Much of the sodium you consume is in plain sight, but some foods are experts at concealment. Hidden sources of sodium can make it difficult to be consciously aware of salt intake. One of the biggest culprits is cheese. Blue cheese, feta and processed cheeses like string cheese pack a hefty sodium punch.
Another surprising source is enhanced chicken. Some manufacturers inject a salt solution in raw chicken to plump it up. It not only adds weight, but excess sodium as well. Look for "non-enhanced" on the package to ensure you aren't paying for extra salt in your diet. If that chicken and cheese are going on a sandwich, make it open-faced. Processed breads can also contain about 180 milligrams of sodium per slice.
8. Processed foods are the real culprit.
It may not be a surprise that processed foods contain a lot of sodium, but the exact number might be. Intake of commercially prepared food and highly processed food accounts for approximately 75 percent of sodium consumed in U.S. diets, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Frozen meals, pizza, deli meats and canned foods contribute a significant amount of sodium to the diet, with some containing more than 1,500 milligrams per serving! And since 56 percent of U.S. adults and 10 percent of children have hypertension (high blood pressure) or prehypertension, decreasing the intake of processed foods is necessary to reduce sodium consumption.
Read more: 12 Foods With Surprising Health Benefits
So how much is too much?
According to the World Health Organization, minimum requirements for sodium intake per day is 200 to 500 milligrams, depending on body size. And the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, with an ideal daily limit of 1,500 milligrams. However, most Americans are eating an average of 3,400 milligrams per day. So keep in mind that while your body needs salt, too much can have negative effects.
What Do YOU Think?
What's your take on salt? Do you enjoy sprinkling it on food? Do you include it in your baking? Do you try to limit your salt intake? Did any of these facts surprise you? Which ones did you already know? Is there anything else you would add? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!
- World Health Organization: Sodium Intakes for Adults and Children.
- American Heart Association: Hypertension. Dietary Salt Intake, Salt Sensitivity, and Cardiovascular Health.
- American Heart Association
- USDA Celery
- USDA Carrots
- USDA Beets
- USDA Beef
- USDA Chicken
- Harvard Medical School – Cut Salt: It Won’t Affect your Iodine Intake.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration - Sodium in your Diet: Use the Nutrition Facts Label and Reduce your Intake.
- USDA Nutrient Database: Whole Wheat Bread