Should you swap your usual table salt for Himalayan or rock varieties? Peta Bee finds out if there's ever a healthy way to consume sodium chloride
It’s not surprising we are confused about what to do with the salt-shaker. On one hand, government health experts urge us to cut down on the white stuff for the good of our health. On the other, celebrity chefs and food bloggers enthuse about the benefits of adding gourmet salts like Himalayan, rock and sea salt, to our food. So what’s the deal with salt?
Do we really need salt?
With all the health warnings to avoid it, it’s easy to forget that salt — sodium chloride — is an element essential for health. Every cell in the body needs sodium to function — it is required to regulate fluid balance and for nerves and muscles, such as those in the heart, to function well. Too little salt can cause mental confusion, an inability to concentrate and, in extreme cases, the potentially fatal condition hyponatraemia, which leads to body salts becoming dangerously diluted and the brain swelling beyond the skull’s capacity. We need it to survive, just not in the amounts we tend to consume it.
How much should we get?
Although UK salt intake has fallen in recent years as manufacturers have begun to add less salt to food, the average daily intake of 8.6g remains above the target level of 6g daily for adults. In fact, new targets commit the UK to working towards a maximum 5g a day by 2025. Professor Graham MacGregor of Queen Mary University of London and chair of the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) says the long-term goal is to have everybody cut down. About 77 per cent of the average salt intake comes from processed, packaged or restaurant food, which can contain very high amounts. The salt added to food at home accounts for comparably little in our overall diet.
How will cutting down salt benefit our health?
Salt reduction in our diets has long been implicated in better heart health. MacGregor says that reducing salt to the 6 gram daily levels recommended could lead to a 16 per cent reduction in deaths from strokes and a 12 per cent reduction in deaths from coronary heart disease.
“The evidence that links salt to blood pressure is as strong as that linking cigarette smoking to cancer and heart disease,” he says. However a high-salt diet has recently been linked to a new group of ailments, with scientists from Yale, Harvard and other leading institutions suggesting it worsens symptoms in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
A study by Professor MacGregor this year even suggested eating too much salt is bad for your waistline. From analyzing urine samples of subjects, his team found that salt intake was higher in people who were overweight, with an extra gram of salt a day leading to almost a 25 per cent per cent increase in the chance of being too heavy.
Does everyone agree it’s harmful?
There’s growing dissent among some researchers that salt has been given an undeservedly bad rap and that it is not as essential for all of us to become salt-obsessed as was once thought. Last year, a study in the American Journal of Hypertension analyzed data from 8,670 French adults and found that salt consumption wasn’t associated with blood pressure issues, the authors claiming the link is “overstated” and “more complex than once believed.” Catherine Collins, principal dietician at St George’s Hospital in Tooting says: “What we do know is that obesity per se increases your risk of hypertension, which is made worse with higher salt food choices” and that “reducing salt is essential if you already have high blood pressure”. However, the evidence for a low-salt diet’s ability to reduce blood pressure in those not affected by hypertension is less clear.
Likewise, Professor Susan Jebb, a government advisor and diet expert at the University of Oxford, says it’s important for people to realise that cutting salt alone will not “reduce their risk of obesity or help them to lose weight”. Some think it might be that salt becomes less of a health threat as we get older. A US study said there was no association between levels of salt intake and the chances of developing heart disease and heart failure in people aged over 70 and over, although data relied on self-reporting of how much salt they were consuming.
Are gourmet salts better for us?
Many of us – 24 per cent of Which? members polled in one survey - like to think that a sprinkle of gourmet salt is healthier than regular table salt. In fact, with sodium chloride accounting for nearly 100 per cent of all rock and sea salts surveyed by CASH and Which? a few years ago, they were found to be more expensive versions of a similar thing. Other posh salts like kosher salt and Pink Himalayan are touted as healthy because they claim to contain more minerals than something like Saxo. Yet the mineral levels are not enough to make a difference, says dietician Louise Sutton. And besides, “salt is not a good way to obtain nutrients in your diet,” Sutton says. With larger crystals, you might use less gourmet salt than you would with a regular shaker, but that’s about it as far as the real benefits are concerned. In fact, in a recent study at East China Normal University, researchers reported finding micro-sized particles of water bottle plastic, cellophane and other plastics in the 15 brands of salt they tested which, they said, probably came from ocean pollution. Sea salt contained the most - up to 1,200 pieces of plastic per pound of salt – with lake salts containing around 800 particles and rock salt up to 450 pieces.
Any tips for cutting down without knowing it?
The consensus is that most of us could do with eating less, even if some of the associated risks have been overplayed. Nutrition expert Ian Marber says we should all get into the habit of checking the nutrition labels to avoid foods containing more than 0.25g salt per 100g (or per ml). “It crops up in the most unlikely places, from healthy looking breakfast cereals to high priced salad dressings,” he says. “Using salt-free stock cubes, sauces or condiments is a good idea, as is adding flavour with spices instead of salt.”