This document is the product of a workshop at Savory Spice Shop led by Andrew Appello, a Suppers Medical Advisor, and Dor. The purpose was to view the health considerations around salt in the context of the culinary and functional uses of salt. There is often some tension between cooks and health care practitioners, and this document tries to view salt in the spirit of Nutritional Harm Reduction, which is how just about everything is done at Suppers. 

Andrew acknowledged that while he is often at odds with the conventional wisdom, he believes salt is generally not good for us in the amounts we use it. While salt is essential to life, it is very rare that people actually get salt deficient. The biggest source in our food supply is packaged foods; they’re loaded. If you cook yourself, you can allow yourself to use some on your food, but use a light hand.

The first symptom of salt depletion is usually confusion. Cramps in muscles could be from salt deficiency, but probably not.

Women tend to be more sensitive to salt, more likely to experience water retention when they take too much of it. “Where the salt goes, the water flows.” Diuretics are used for high blood pressure, getting rid of salt and water. The greater the volume the more pressure, and there is a cumulative effect on the heart over many years. 

The DASH diet is a cardiovascular diet. It emphasizes vegetables and fruits that are mineral rich and balance your potassium and sodium levels with real whole food. It lowers blood pressure. 

Sodium and potassium balance each other in the diet. You need both. We need at least twice the potassium over sodium in ratio. The standard American diet is depleted of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, all of which are present in green leafy vegetables.

The current recommendation is to get 2300 mg per day. That is the upward limit. According to the CDC we actually need only up to 500 mg per day. And while many can tolerate the 2300 mg or a bit more per day, the average intake for Americans age 2 (!) and over is 3436 mg of sodium. Salt restriction to at most 1500 mg daily is recommended if:

  • You are 51 years of age or older.
  • You are African American.
  • You have high blood pressure.
  • You have diabetes.
  • You have chronic kidney disease.

You can look up the sodium content of your food on a chart. There are some high numbers among the cheeses and fish, but the whoppers are all the processed foods, with prepared foods providing the daily requirement for salt in one small serving. 

There are differences among individuals and cultures (for example, my blood pressure is likely to be around 90/58 and my doctor told me to salt to taste -– actually more). The Japanese eat a fair amount of salt, starting with miso soup for breakfast, and they don’t have higher rates of heart attacks. It’s hard to know what’s right, but it speaks well for the culinary traditions that still feed their populations primarily on home-prepared food. That Japanese with their salt and the French with their brie rate much higher than the U.S. in life expectancy. 

Eastern cultures have a different take on salt. Salty is one of five flavors (sweet, umami, sour pungent and bitter being the others), and they are meant to be kept in balance when we cook and eat. In this system, salt has to be in balance for bone and kidney health. Andrew said that adding a bit of salt to dishes for balance may have been a good idea when salt was hard to find but now it’s everywhere.

In the early 1900s goiters were a problem, especially in the Midwest because of iodine deficiency. It was the government that attached salt to iodine for goiter for no other reason than that everybody eats salt. Andrew said we’d be better off getting iodine by eating a little seaweed each day.

Types and Uses of Salts

Most of our table salt is mined salt; it has been refined and purified down to NaCl. Evaporated sea salts may be better as long as they haven’t been purified and refined and lost all their trace minerals, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, etc.

Celtic sea salt is a new fad. He uses Hamalayan and Celtic because it’s better salt but notes that it’s not that big a deal. Salt just isn’t a significant source of important minerals; leafy greens are. And if you have a heart condition the recommended amount is none.

You can make mineral teas by simmering nettles, oat straw, horse tale, raspberry leaf and other mineral-rich herbs. For stock, you don’t need a recipe, you just throw all your herbs, vegetable pairings, onion, carrots, whatever you have into the stock pot and simmer 45 minutes or longer to get minerals out. The longer the better. Minerals don’t break down in the presence of heat. You can add kombu and 3 TBS of cider vinegar to up the mineral availability and break down the cell walls.

For hydration and replacing minerals lost in hard exercise, Andrew prefers Emergen-C to the popular drinks, but mostly you just need water. 

Devon of Savory Spice introduced different salt products including a slab of Himalayan salt which can be used as a roasting tray. You can bake or broil right on top of this “salt brick,” and simply wipe off after use. No bacteria can live on the surface of salt. Several items were suggested as salt substitutes, including herb mixes that contain dried lemon and garlic to deliver some zing to the tongue.

Dor noted that we’re not going to get cooks to stop using salt. But we can practice harm reduction. The best flavor comes from salting foods as they cook. Adding salt at the table doesn’t blend flavors and enhance the depth of foods as does layering salt as you cook. In particular, using a bit of salt at the beginning of a dish to sweat and color onions or caramelize vegetables in oil may result in less desire for salt in the end.

Salt makes it possible to lacto-ferment vegetables with no other starters or whey. You simply brine the vegetables, drain them, and pack them in jars making sure there are some juices covering the vegetables. Salt suppresses the organisms that would cause mold until the lactobacilli grow in sufficient quantity to ferment the vegetables. 

Historical Notes on Salt‚Äč

  • The word Salt comes from the same root as salad and salary. In some cultures it was used as currency. In Rome, for example, the legionnaires were paid in salt.
  • The term “worth his salt” comes from the Greek slave trade when salt was a form of currency used for procuring human slaves.
  • The importance of salt comes initially from its ability to preserve food. Salt is a foundation of civilization because it eliminated dependence on seasonal food.
  • People have been mining salt for thousands of years. Venice was built on the salt industry. Salzburg Austria got its name from salt. It means literally salt city. Munich was founded as a rebellion against salt taxes.
  • Wars have been fought over salt. Prior to the French Revolution, the salt tax increased by 10 times and was one of the causes of the war.
  • Napoleon lost thousands of troops because of the lack of salt which was needed to heal wounds. Salt is a low tech anti-infection agent and was used to pack infected gunshot wounds.
  • Gaining control of salt mines has played an important role in the history of wars. Salting the earth is a practice that was used to punish criminals and traitors. Salting fields after conquering people was a way of destroying the land so that it couldn't be farmed again.
  • Salt can be mined or it can be evaporated in large pans of boiling brine. Where the climate is bad people developed methods of evaporating the salt in pans under sheds.
  • Salt, which is bulky and difficult to transport, drove the need to build the Erie Canal and was its principal cargo.
  • In Judaism, salt is a symbol of purification. When Jesus told his disciples to be the salt of the earth he meant for them to be a force for keeping men free of the corruption of sin.
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