While studying for a vocabulary test, one of my boys asked me if I knew that the root of the word salary was "salarium" which is derived from "sal" or salt. He explained that Roman warriors were once paid in salt. Why, he asked, was salt good enough to be somebody's hard-earned paycheck back then, yet is considered such a bad thing now?
Salt: hero or villain?
I explained that salt itself isn't a bad thing. In fact, it is necessary for life, one of the body's basic elements and most important electrolytes. Our bodies need it to:
- Increase hydration by allowing water into cells. - Help the intestines absorb nutrients. - Prevent muscle cramping. - Keep joints limber. - Control blood pressure and stabilize the heartbeat. - Increase communication between nerve cells and the brain. - Support the proper breakdown of complex carbohydrates and proteins into usable food.
Also, before refrigerators and freezers, salting was one of the few ways to preserve food. On the downside, adults generally consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which is 50 percent more than the recommended maximum amount of 2,300 milligrams (about a teaspoon), and 9 in 10 children consume more sodium than is recommended.
So salt is essential, but in an appropriate amount.
How much is enough?
Studies are inconsistent yet seem to show that 2,300 to 3,000 milligrams a day is most desirable. It is widely believed that too much salt can increase blood pressure. But the myth that the lower the sodium the better is just that: a myth.
In 2013, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed 34 studies concerning sodium. "There's no data - none - showing that curtailing sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams provides better health outcomes," Brian Strom, who chaired the review and resulting report, said at the time. One study tracked 28,880 individuals with heart disease or diabetes and found that those who consumed less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium a day were 37 percent more likely to die of heart disease than those who consumed 4,000 to 6,000 milligrams.
If you believe you need to limit your sodium, start by limiting your processed foods. More than 75 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed foods. This is not surprising, since refined salt is both a preservative and a flavor enhancer.
Sea salt vs. table salt: What is the difference?
In recent years, many gourmet salts have entered the market arriving in gorgeous colors (my daughter loves the pink ones) and carrying higher price tags. Are they worth their salt?
Additives: Table salt and many highly processed sea salt brands may have up to 18 food additives such as glucose and other anti-caking agents. Authentic sea salt does not.
Processing: Sea salt is simply made by evaporating seawater. The typical and complicated process of making table salt includes high heat, high pressure, bleaching, additives and oxidation.
Nutrient content: Both sea salt and table salt have similar amounts of sodium chloride so lower sodium is not the reason to choose a more expensive sea salt. Yet sodium chloride needs other elements to assimilate into the body properly and work its magic; authentic sea salts provide these elements. Good-quality sea salts offer trace minerals such as zinc, iron and selenium in the same ratio to sodium chloride found in our blood. These trace minerals are regulators, helping with important bodily functions and a healthy balance of electrolytes in the body. Sea salts also provide tiny amounts of macro-minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. During processing, table salt and processed sea salt lose their trace and macro-mineral content.
Iodine: Table salt has added iodine, a trace mineral that supports thyroid health. Iodine can also be found in whole foods such as eggs, dairy, seaweed and fish.
Flavor: Salt reduces the bitterness of some foods so other flavors can shine through. Sea salt brands may have a sweeter or more earthy flavor than the more stringent table salt.
There are so many sea salt brands on the market, are they all equal?
There are fewer federal regulations for sea salt than table salt, so many products labeled "sea salt" are not the real deal; they may be stripped of trace minerals or may include ingredients other than salt. I have been a loyal Selina Naturally's Celtic Sea Salt brand customer for the past decade so I called Selina Delangre, the company's CEO, to ask her a few questions. She said that she visits every salt flat and the surrounding land to investigate the conditions. She conducts third-party lab tests every season on all of her products to ensure that her labels can honestly claim more than 80 trace minerals and no contaminants. Her products are unrefined, additive-free and sustainably harvested, and she conducts fair business practices with her farmers across the world. HimalaSalt also offers a sustainable product and fair-trade practices from its ancient and uncontaminated salt beds in Pakistan, and the products test for all of the same 80-plus minerals, according to its Web site. Real Salt is another trustworthy brand that sources from ancient salt deposits in Utah. Its Web site says its products have the essential trace minerals, and it's generally cheaper than other brands on the market.
So whether sea salt is worth the extra cash is up to you, but products from these brands certainly meet my criteria: They are actually the salt of the earth and nothing else.
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington-based nutrition education company, and co-author of "The Super Food Cards," a collection of healthful recipes and advice.