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by Mallory Nowak, NTP
Salt: a seemingly simple ingredient with bold flavor and an infamous reputation.
Salt was deemed an ingredient of concern when hypertension and heart disease became the widespread health crises they are today. But human consumption of unrefined salt can be traced back thousands of years, some evidence indicating as early as 6,000 BC.
Key words in the above paragraph? Unrefined salt. A naturally-occurring, unprocessed food ingredient. One could even go so far as to say a beneficial food ingredient thanks to the broad spectrum of up to 84 trace minerals contained in unrefined salts. It is these trace minerals that lend to the beautiful hue of pink, grey, blue or black found in various unrefined salts. Himalayan, Celtic and Redmond’s Real Salt are all popular options.
The snow-white, free-flowing table salt that fills nearly all salt shakers across the US is vastly different from the unrefined salt our ancestors ate. The processing of table salt strips it of its many beneficial minerals, leaving consumers with isolated sodium chloride. The final product is nutrient-depleted and white in color. To add insult to injury, table salt is often laced with anti-caking agents. This type of salt has become an insidious staple in the Standard American Diet, found in the vast majority of home kitchens, restaurants and, of course, processed foods.
Why is the removal of trace minerals from salt so alarming? Minerals have synergistic and antagonistic relationships amongst one another in our bodies, making ratios important. When one mineral is isolated (sodium, in this case), an imbalance is created. Sodium and potassium have an important partnership in regulating blood pressure via the sodium-potassium pump, but this process is hindered when we remove the potassium from salt.
Furthermore, guess what electrolytes are…? Minerals! Muscle cramps and spasms, anyone? Heart arrhythmias? Dehydration or thirst unresponsive to increased water intake? These are often symptoms of an electrolyte deficiency—in fact, electrolytes are required for proper cell hydration. A popular remedy is to add a pinch of unrefined salt to drinking water; this replenishes minerals that have been removed during water’s purification process.
One caveat? I would be doing a disservice not to mention the importance of iodine in the human diet. In order to address widespread iodine deficiencies due to iodine-depleted soils, the US government began fortifying table salt with iodine in 1924. While this has effectively reduced the prevalence of goiter and other symptoms of iodine deficiency, there are certainly more nutritive ways one can meet their needs for iodine (given they do not have an autoimmune thyroid condition). Regular consumption of sea vegetables and/or supplementation are two such options I would recommend over iodized table salt. As always, discuss dietary changes and the addition of supplements with your doctor.