Salt and Sodium

Comments Off on Salt and Sodium | April 18, 2012

Salt is a simple molecule made from sodium and chlorine atoms.  The combination of sodium and the chlorine ion chloride produces sodium chloride (chemical symbol NaCl) commonly referred to as table salt.  It is the sodium in salt and other products like MSG (monosodium glutamate) that is linked to water retention and the increased risk of high blood pressure.

Sodium is an essential nutrient you can’t live without. Your body does not make sodium so you must obtain it from food.

In The United States, the problem is not sodium deficiency, but too much dietary sodium from eating a wide variety of restaurant and prepared foods.

To reduce excess sodium circulating your your bloodstream your body retains water. Excess water increases blood volume which increases pressure on your arteries and veins. Think of your arteries as a rubber garden hose. When the flow of water through the hose is unrestricted very little pressure is exerted on the hose wall. When you restrict the flow, the hose must withstand the same pressure in your water pipes. But unlike your water pipes, a garden hose isn’t designed to withstand constant high pressure. If you don’t turn the water off and release the pressure in your hose it will last a few days or weeks before rupturing. Your blood vessels act the same way. They can last a lifetime under normal blood pressure. Increase the pressure over extended periods of time and a weakened artery can rupture to relieve the pressure. If that happens in your hearth or brain it produces a heart attack or stroke.

You may think the easiest way to prevent a heart attack or stroke is to avoid sodium rich foods and added salt. Avoidance isn’t necessary, but you can reduce your risk by reducing sodium in your diet. You body needs sodium to regulate blood pressure, blood volume and muscle and nerve functions. So you can not live on a sodium free diet. Sodium occurs naturally in soil so most fruits and vegetables provide a small amount of sodium. Most sodium in the American diet comes from processes foods, cured meats, bread and cheese. Some researchers estimate the human body needs between 200 and 500 mg of sodium per day. Other researchers believe the amount needed is much higher; up to 1,500 mg per day.

Most fresh foods, meat, poultry, fish and drinking water contain sodium. The amount varies depending on the source and in the case of drinking water is measured in trace amounts like parts per million or billion. One cup of cow’s milk has about 125 milligrams of sodium whereas one cup of almond milk can have 180 mg of sodium. Cheese gets most of its sodium from milk and added salt. Sodium added to foods usually comes from sodium chloride; table salt, Kosher salt and sea salt. Flavor enhancers like MSG can add large amount of sodium to foods. Oriental restaurants that once relied heavily on MSG have reduced or eliminated it.

If all MSG was banned there would still be no shortage of sodium in the average American diet. Salt has been used as an inexpensive preservative and flavor enhancer for thousands of years.  If you are on a low sodium diet or are just interested in reducing your sodium intake you must carefully read the list of ingredients on all foods and look for the words soda or sodium in addition to salt.  Most manufactured foods have a nutrition label listing the amount of sodium and percent of daily requirement per serving. Examples of sodium added to various food products are:

  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • sodium nitrite
  • sodium sulfite
  • sodium saccharin
  • baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • sodium benzoate
  • disodium phosphate
  • sodium alginate
  • sodium hydroxide
  • sodium propionate

These are ingredients in condiments and seasonings such as Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, onion salt, garlic salt, bouillon cubes and hundreds of other food products. Monosodium glutamate isn’t restricted to Oriental restaurants. Many processed foods have MSG to enhance flavor.

Dietary Guidelines for Sodium

Former Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting sodium intake to 5 to 6 grams of added salt a day (that is, salt added by manufacturers and consumers above and beyond that already provided naturally by the food itself).  Dietary sodium is measured in milligrams (mg). Six grams of table salt (about 1 teaspoon) which is 40 percent sodium has about 2.4 grams (2400 mg) of sodium (6g x 0.4 = 2.4g).

For individuals who are sodium-sensitive, high levels of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure. In the United States, nearly 400,000 deaths each year are attributed to blood pressure. Therefore, doctors may advise people with high blood pressure to reduce sodium intake. Everyone with high blood pressure should discuss this issue with their doctor. Reducing sodium can also reduce the side effects from certain prescription medications. Some doctors rely on prescription drugs to reduce blood pressure rather than dietary changes which are difficult to control. It is easier prescribing drugs than controlling a patients diet. All drugs have side effects and very few doctors discuss potential side effects with patients. Instead, they rely on experience and trial and error. It is always best, whenever possible, to control blood pressure and cholesterol by diet and exercise. Without lifestyle changes, you’ll be on blood pressure medications for life.
Guidelines for sodium consumption keep changing. Restricting sodium to 1500 mg per day or less is being challenged for lack of conclusive evidence and some researchers believe consuming less that 1,500 mg per day may be harmful. What should you do? Use your blood pressure as a guide. If it is above normal and your diet consists of sodium rich processed foods add fresh fruits and vegetables and cut back on processed foods. Increase consumption of potassium rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Potassium helps element sodium from your body.

The average sodium intake in the United States is between 4,000 and 5,000 mg per day. With some people consuming up to 12,000 mg of sodium per day; that’s equivalent to 5 teaspoons of salt!

People eating three meals per day and no salty snacks should average about 800 mg of sodium per meal (2,400 mg per day). Maintaining that limit is almost impossible on a fast food and processed food diet. But, it doesn’t mean you have to completely give up processed and fast foods.

Types of Salt

Until the recent explosion of celebrity chefs and food programming elevating some types of salt to gourmet status, salt meant ordinary table salt purchased at your local supermarket in round cardboard container costing about 70 cents USD for 26 ounces.  It is available with or without iodine.  Iodine is added to salt because it is an essential nutrient needed by your body.  It is  part of the thyroid hormones that regulate body temperature, metabolic rate, reproduction, growth, making blood cells, nerve and muscle function  and much more.

The amount of iodine needed in your diet and by your body is small.  Iodine is found in the oceans, so seafood is a good source, and in the soil.  In the United States, the soil in many areas where crops are grown is iodine poor.  By adding iodine to salt, you are assured an adequate supply in your diet.  People on low salt or no salt diets must obtain enough iodine from other sources.

  • Table salt (with and without iodine)
  • Kosher Salt (contains no iodine
  • Sea salt (with and without iodine

For cooking there are three major types of salt readily available to consumers:

Table Salt

Table salt is the common salt normally found the home and at restaurants. It is a fine-ground, refined rock salt with additives like calcium silicate to keep it free-flowing. Smaller particles mean more salt per measure than coarser grinds like Kosher and sea salts.  To substitute table salt for Kosher salt or course sea salt, use about half the amount called for in the recipe.   What may surprise you if you have never read the label on a container of iodized table salt is that it contains a small amount of sugar (usually indicated as dextrose in the ingredients listing).  Without adding dextrose the iodized salt would turn yellow due to oxidation of the iodine.

Kosher Salt

Kosher salt is a coarser grind of rock salt with large, irregular crystals. It contains no additives. Kosher dietary laws strictly require as much blood as possible be removed from meat before cooking. This coarse grind of Kosher salt does that job. Kosher salt is a favorite with not only Jewish cooks, but also professional and gourmet cooks who prefer its flavor and texture. When substituting Kosher salt for table salt, you may need to add more than a recipe calls for since it seems less salty. The size and shape of the crystals cannot permeate the food as easily as fine grades. Coarse pickling salt or sea salt can be substituted for Kosher salt. Using equivalent measures of Kosher salt as a substitute for table salt is an excellent way to reduce the amount of salt and therefore the amount of sodium in a recipe and your diet by up to 40 percent. Finely ground Kosher salt has the same amount of sodium as table and fine ground sea salt.

Sea Salt

Sea salt is made by evaporating sea water and can be purchased as fine, medium or coarsely ground. This process is more expensive than mining rock salt and is reflected in the price.  The price of sea salt has dropped dramatically in the past few years to to increased production. There is no standard for crystal size so one manufactures medium ground is another’s course ground.  Most medium ground sea salt is equivalent to Kosher salt.  Some people consider sea salt to be nutritionally better than rock salt because it is unrefined and contains natural trace minerals, but the difference is usually insignificant. Table salt and Kosher salt is mined rock salt left from ancient seas that evaporated millions of years ago. Both are refined to remove impurities. Sea salt can have a stronger and more interesting flavor compared to table salt and Kosher salt.  Iodized sea salt is available as a replacement for iodized table salt.

Low Sodium Salts

Since it is the sodium in salt that cause health problems, manufacturers are marketing low sodium salts.  Some contain potassium chloride (KCl).  Adding potassium chloride reduces the amount of sodium per teaspoon.  There are low sodium sea salts which are unrefined salt containing more minerals than rock salt.  But, claims of sea salt with 50 percent less sodium are exaggerated because salt is salt. You can reduce the sodium content by adding other salts like potassium chloride but the cost can increase from 3 cents per ounce up to 60 cents per ounce.  An easier and more cost effective way to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet by 50 percent is by using 50 percent less salt. To do this use halve the amount of table salt in the recipe, substitute an equivalent measure of Kosher salt which has has half the sodium of table salt, and use herds to season foods. In a short period of time you can enjoy eating home cooked foods with little or no added salt.

Revised January 22, 2019