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Salt: All You Need To Know About It

Salt: All You Need To Know About It

What Is Salt and Where Does It Come From?

Most of the salt you eat comes from seawater or is mined from deep within the earth.

Seawater is diverted to a shallow evaporation pond connected by man-made canals. The pond fills with water, and through the natural process of evaporation, the water slowly disappears, leaving salt to be harvested. (1)

Underground salt (from rock salt) is extracted by drilling or cutting a hole into the rock, and then using machinery to break up the salt into crushed pieces. Miners can also erect walls around a salt bed, and then inject the bed with forced water to dissolve the mineral. (2)

The end result is a liquid salt solution that’s pumped and held in an evaporation tank. The liquid evaporates, and the salt remains. (2)

Six Functions of Salt in Food

To some people, salt is nothing more than an ingredient in their favorite dishes. But salt doesn’t only add flavor to foods. The body needs salt, and it plays an important role in preserving food. 

Hunters in ancient times often killed more than they could quickly consume. To protect the food from bacteria, mold, and spoilage, they would sprinkle salt on the meat to draw out the moisture and keep it fresh for a longer period of time. (2)

Salt also preserved corpses and was used in the mummification process. Due to the high demand in ancient civilizations, salt was heavily taxed, traded, and even used as a form of currency.

Salt will also help release certain molecules in food, bringing out some of the ingredients’ flavors and making food more aromatic. 

A Food Preservative

Salt-curing meat (and other foods) is one of the oldest methods of food preservation, occurring well before refrigeration. Microbes that can spoil food need moisture to grow, and salt acts as a preservative by drawing moisture out of food. Many disease-causing microbes are also simply unable to grow in the presence of salt. (3) (4)

When salt is mixed with water, it becomes a brine. Brining is soaking food in heavily salted water, which preserves and flavors food. Pickling, for example, is a form of brine. (5)

A Texture Enhancer

Most people do not realize that salt plays a large role in creating texture in food. When making yeast bread, for example, the amount of salt greatly affects the rate of yeast fermentation and gluten formation, both of which will significantly affect the bread’s final texture. (6)

Salt also has a profound effect on the gelatinization of proteins, which occurs in cheese production and many processed types of meat such as sausage, bologna, and ham. In processed meat products, salt helps retain moisture, and so less saturated fat is needed.

When a steak is salted at the right time, it will encourage the meat to release more liquid, which eventually reabsorbs into the meat resulting in a juicy (and flavorful) steak. Large salt crystals are also often used as a garnish to add a crunchy texture, as with soft and hard pretzels.

A Flavor Enhancer

Salt acts in multiple ways to enhance the flavor of food. Not only does it create a “salty” flavor element, one of the most desired tastes by humans, but salt can also affect other flavors, such as sweet and bitter.

In small amounts, salt will intensify sweetness, so it is sometimes sprinkled on fresh fruit or added to candies like caramel. Salt can also counteract bitter flavors in food—it is often used to “de-bitter” cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli) and olives. (7)

Salt will also help release certain molecules in food, bringing out some of the ingredients’ flavors and making food more aromatic. 

A Nutrient Source

Pure table salt is comprised of approximately 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chlorine. Although most Americans consume far too much sodium, it is a nutrient that is essential for survival. Sodium is needed to help relax and contract muscles, conduct nerve impulses, and sustain the proper balance of minerals and water in the body. Most table salts in the United States also have iodine added to them to prevent iodine deficiencies, which can cause disorders of the thyroid, including goiters.

A Binder

Because salt helps form protein gels, it can be used as a binding agent. When salt is added to foods such as sausage or other processed meats, it causes gelatinization of proteins which then hold the product together.

A Color Enhancer

The vibrant color of many processed types of meat, such as ham or hot dogs, is partially due to salt. The presence of salt helps promote and maintain color and prevents it from turning gray or muddy. Salt also increases caramelization in a bread crust, which helps it get that golden color.

What’s the Difference Between Sodium and Salt?

You might use the terms sodium and salt interchangeably, but there are differences between the two.

Salt is a natural mineral composed of two elements: sodium and chloride. (8)

Table salt is about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. One teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium. 

Sodium is found in food, either naturally or manufactured into processed foods. (9)

How Much Salt a Day Is Okay, and How Much Is Too Much?

Your body takes in sodium through the foods you eat and eliminates extra sodium in perspiration and urine. The role of sodium in overall health is to help cells and organs function properly by regulating blood pressure, supporting muscular contraction, and keeping nerve impulses running smoothly. It’s one of the electrolytes responsible for maintaining a healthy amount of fluids in the body. (10) (11)

Too much or too little sodium can cause some of those bodily processes to malfunction, and do the body has mechanisms for monitoring how much sodium it’s taken in. (12)

If sodium levels get too high, the body will signal the kidneys to get rid of the excess. If levels dip too low, you may show signs of a condition called hyponatremia, which is a medical emergency in which the brain is affected. Symptoms include dizziness, muscle twitches, seizures, and in severe cases, loss of consciousness. (13)

Americans eat about 3,400 mg of sodium per day on average. A single teaspoon of table salt contains about 2,325 mg of sodium, according to the Mayo Clinic. The recommended daily limit is 2,300 mg for adults and children. (2) (14)

Keep in mind that some people should reduce their sodium intake even further, perhaps consuming no more than 1,500 mg per day. This limit is recommended for all African-Americans, as well as anyone who has diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), or chronic kidney disease. (15)

For people with chronic kidney disease, the goal according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010  should be to consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium each day or the amount prescribed by their doctor. (16) (17)

What Are the Health Risks of Eating Too Much Salt?

Now that you know how salt can help you, here’s a look at how too much salt can hurt you:

Increases Water Retention

If you eat too much salt, your kidneys may not be able to filter excess sodium from your bloodstream. Sodium builds up in your system, and your body holds onto extra water in an attempt to dilute the sodium. This can cause water retention and bloating. (2) (18)

Damages Cardiovascular Health

Excess water in your body can put added pressure on your heart and blood vessels, triggering high blood pressure. This is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke. The risk for heart disease is higher when a high-sodium diet is accompanied by a low-potassium diet. Potassium helps excrete sodium from your body and help to relax blood vessels. (19)

Higher Risk of Osteoporosis

The more salt you eat, the more calcium your body loses through urination. And unfortunately, if you don’t have enough calcium in your diet, the body will take it from your bones, increasing the risk for bone problems, like osteoporosis. (19)

May Increase Your Risk for Stomach Cancer

There’s also evidence suggesting that a high-salt diet increases the risk for stomach cancer, according to a study published in 2014 in the journal Cancer Treatment and Research, and earlier research published in the British Journal of Cancer. (20)

Why You Might Crave Salt if You Eat a High-Salt Diet

Even if you know the importance of cutting back to reduce your sodium intake, this is easier said than done when you constantly crave a salty treat.

It might come as a shock, but salt is addictive. In fact, some studies have found that salt stimulates the brain in the same way that cigarettes and drugs do, such as one published in the journal Psychological Behavior. So the more you eat salty foods, the more you may crave it. This can explain why it’s hard to just eat one chip. (21)

Keep in mind that salt cravings can also be a sign of a medical problem. You could have an adrenal insufficiency caused by Addison’s disease, or a rare kidney problem called Bartter syndrome. Consult your doctor if cravings persist or intensify. (22)

Tips for Following a Low-Salt Diet

Here are a few tips to help you cut back and eat less salt: 

Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Skip processed foods, like cured meats, canned goods, bagged items, and frozen foods, and spend more time in the produce aisle.

Read labels. Don’t purchase canned goods or processed items with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. Bear in mind that a product labeled “no salt” may have other ingredients that contain sodium. 

Cook without salt. Experiment with herbs and spices for flavoring, such as oregano, garlic, thyme, chili powder, rosemary, and any other seasoning in your cupboard. Also avoid adding salt at the table.

Prepare your own food. Restaurant items contain higher amounts of sodium to keep the food fresh. Cook your own food to control the sodium. Before eating out, check a restaurant’s nutritional menu online to find low-sodium selections.

Be mindful of natural sources of sodium. Meat, dairy products, bread, and shellfish all contain sodium, so be sure to regulate your intake of these foods if you’re watching your salt intake. (14)

Tips for Selecting Salt for the Best Taste

The right salt can bring out the flavor of a dish. But before you can choose the right one, you must understand the different types of salt: 

  • Sea Salt – Because this salt has larger crystals, it’s an excellent choice to diversify the texture of your meals. Just be mindful that it contains just as much sodium as other types of salt.
  • Table Salt, or Common Salt – This salt is easily identified by its small, fine grains. Because it dissolves quickly, it’s often used for seasoning meat and adding flavor to pasta water. This is the type of salt that is commonly iodized.
  • Kosher Salt – With its large, flaky texture, kosher is preferred by professional cooks when seasoning steaks, pork chops, and other meat.
  • Himalayan Pink Salt – A great selection for adding flavor to fish, poultry, and vegetables.
  • Red and Black Hawaiian Sea Salt – Made with volcanic clay and activated charcoal, these salts are commonly used in Hawaiian cuisines.
  • Smoked Sea Salt – Adds flavor to dry rubs and barbecue. It can also be sprinkled on popcorn, vegetables, salads, and sandwiches.
  • Fleur de Sel – This delicate salt isn’t used for seasoning food while cooking but adds flavor to finished meals.
  • Flake Salt – Use this salt when preparing blanched vegetables or salad.
  • Gray Salt – This grayish colored salt is often used in French recipes.
  • Unseasoned Salt – This doesn’t contain other herbs, spices, or flavoring, and has an infinite shelf life. But make sure you store it in a dry place like a cupboard. 
  • Gomasio salt – it’s a Japanese seasoning blend made from whole sesame seeds and salt. You can make it yourself. Simply grind  200gr sesame and mix it with 500 gr salt (pink or sea salt). You can also add 2 full tbsp saffron (around 20-30g). Both sesame as saffron will help minimise the inflammatory effect of sodium in your organism. (23)

This article is the summary of a research of mine on this topic. Most of it’s content is literally or in excerpts taken from Everyday Health and from The Spruce Eats, among other sites linked in the article.

I hope you have learnt as much as I have! Please let me know if there is any other topic you would like me to dig in and summarise for you. I love to learn new things and to share my knowledge with others!

Have a great sweet week,

Leonor

Get free recipe books with delicious healthy desserts and cakes, here!

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