Week 11: Salt – how much and what kind?

salt how much what kind

We all know that too much salt in your diet is unhealthy.  However, many of us are unsure of how much we should have on a daily basis.  Then there’s the myriad of salts to choose from on the grocery shelf.  Table salt, sea salt, kosher salt – so many choices can be confusing.  Which brings us to the question:  Salt – how much and what kind?

The current CDC recommendation is 2,300 mg. or less of salt per day for healthy people under 50 and 1,500 mg. or less per day for most people over 50.  Sounds like a lot, right?  It only sounds that way – 2,300 mg. of sodium is one teaspoon (6 g.) and 1,500 mg. is ¾ of a teaspoon (3.75 g.).  How many of us actually limit our sodium to one teaspoon, or 6 g. per day?

Most of us are probably aware of the health risks associated with consuming too much salt daily – kidney stones, obesity, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure.  However, most American aren’t aware that controlling your sodium intake is about a lot more than just avoiding the extra shakes from the salt shaker.  The average American’s dietary salt comes not from the shaker but from processed foods.

There are the obvious salt bombs – processed foods, snack foods, luncheon meats, canned soup, and frozen meals – but there are others that may surprise you at their high sodium content.  Restaurant  food, prepared pasta sauces, processed breakfast foods (including cereals), bread and muffin mixes and even ketchup.  Just one tablespoon of ketchup has 160 mg. of ketchup.  How many of us limit our ketchup to one serving, a tablespoon?

The reality is that very few people have the slightest idea how much salt they consume in a day.  You can mostly take control of how much salt is in your foods by preparing it yourself instead of relying on packaged or processed and avoiding eating out more than you eat at home.

As with any healthy diet, the salt issue is all about balance and moderation.  You shouldn’t cut it out completely; in small amounts sodium helps to maintain the correct balance of body fluids and aids in muscle contraction and relaxation.  It’s also important in the sweating process, which allows you to cool down and avoid dehydration and heat stroke.

On the other hand, too much salt can have serious effects on your body’s nervous system.  Salt is a key factor in your brain sending nerve impulses to the rest of your body.  For your nervous system to function properly there must be a good balance of sodium and potassium; too much sodium can have negative effects on nerve functions.

A study of 12,000 adults published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that maintaining a diet with equal parts sodium and potassium can actually reduce risk for some diseases. Researchers found that simply cutting back on sodium-rich processed foods and eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables was usually enough to balance the mineral levels for optimum health (http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1106080).

Once you have a handle on sodium intake, the next hurdle is understanding the different salts that are on the market.  Although they all contain the same amount of sodium per serving, the unique flavors of some of them can actually help you use less.  A bonus to most of the “gourmet” salts is that, unlike regular table salt, they are unrefined and don’t contain the additives of regular table salt.

Below are three of the most commonly found salts on the grocery shelves, their characteristics and best uses.

Table Salt

  • Consists of fine, evenly shaped crystals and is denser than other salts. It’s usually mined from salt deposits underground, iodized and contains anti-clumping agents, such as calcium silicate.
  • When to use: Keep out on the table for last-minute seasoning. It’s also good for salting pasta water or seasoning soups.

Kosher Salt

  • Less refined than table salt with larger flakes and coarser.
  • When to use: Kosher salt is the most versatile; use to season before, during and after cooking. Especially good for seasoning meat before cooking.

Sea Salt

  • The least processed; flakes are collected from evaporated seawater and may contain residual minerals that could alter the color.
  • When to use: Best as a finishing salt; usually more expensive so use sparingly.

If you use only one salt, make it kosher. It’s affordable and usually contains no additives.  Remember to check the ingredient label, it should only list salt.

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