Just the same as the ‘buzz’ around different types of fats (Still confused about fats? Read here), it is important to keep things in perspective. Yes salt, or more specifically sodium, plays an important role in our body at a cellular level but given how far and wide salt can be found in our food supply it really is not necessary to add it to our diet - no matter how pretty and pink it is or how impressive the claims may seem.
The picture below is just one that popped up in my Facebook feed recently and although the benefits of Himalayan salt over regular salt may seem impressive, I feel I have to be the ‘fun sponge’ (or voice of reason) and point out that maybe, just maybe, they are a tad misleading.
Of course we know excess salt isn’t great for us, right? - It can raise our blood pressure which does damage to our blood vessels and can lead to cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure trumps obesity as a risk factor for disease and is in fact the greatest attributor to cardiovascular disease, accounting for over 42% of the total burden - and what a burden it is; cardiovascular disease is the reigning champion when it comes to killing Aussies. (1)
Although these stats are alarming they aren’t really a surprise considering the typical Australian diet contains about 10g of salt which is more than twice the suggested dietary target for sodium (1600mg of sodium, equivalent to about 4g of ‘common’ salt; or about 3.4g ‘Himalayan’ salt, based on trivially less sodium content claimed in the image).
About 75% of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods, 18% is estimated to come from discretionary use (that is added directly to cooking or at the table at the users discretion, only 50 – 70% of people do this), and the remaining 7% or so comes naturally from foods. (2)
So as you can see switching to Himalayan salt over regular salt isn’t really going to have a big impact on the type of salt you consume with the majority hidden in processed foods.
Let’s look at the claim about magnesium:
It is estimated the about 30% of Australian adults may not meet the RDI (310 – 420mg/day) for magnesium (remembering there are big safety margins on this figure so this does not necessarily equal deficiency). Low intakes of magnesium probably have something to do with the fact that more than 90% of the population are not eating enough vegetables, many of which are a great source of magnesium. (3) Most green vegetables, legumes, peas, beans, nuts and most whole grains are rich in magnesium and unlike Himalayan salt, these foods also provide a host of other nutrients, like potassium, which directly work to counter the effects of sodium on blood pressure.
I can’t find any reliable statistics on the actual magnesium content of Himalayan salt but I would assume you would have to eat a decent wack of the stuff to make any sought of contribution towards the RDI. I know a lot of people aren’t too keen on eating veggies, but surely a side of broccoli would be preferable to a big bucket of salt??
What’s about Iodised Salt?
Iodised salt is actually a good thing despite the connotation in the image. In 2009 regulations were put in place in Australia to ensure that the salt used in commercial bread making was in fact iodised to counter the re-emergence of iodine deficiency which can affect thyroid function and cause mental retardation. Iodine deficiency is said to be the most preventable cause of mental retardation in the world – if you do choose to add salt to your food choose iodised salt.
Seafood, seaweed and eggs are also good sources of iodine.
The Moral of the story:
If you eat a diet comprising completely of unprocessed foods and you enjoy adding a little Himalayan salt to your meals – go for it. If you fit into this category I will assume you are also getting plenty of magnesium and potassium from the loads of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and nuts you eat every day as well as sufficient iodine for the 2 – 3 serves of seafood you eat each week.
If you currently don’t add any salt to your food, you really don’t need to start especially if you do eat some processed foods like breads, crackers, sausages, ham, bacon, sauces and any other condiments.
If you eat a lot of processed foods, like those already mentioned plus chips, biscuits, frozen and readymade meals, and take away, then you need to throw out the salt shaker all together and really work to reduce your intake of high sodium processed foods and increase your intake of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and legumes.
Don’t forget to read the label
Once you start looking at labels the amount of sodium in common foods is pretty scary.
Where possible choose foods with ‘no added salt,’ ‘reduced salt’ or aim for around 120mg of sodium per 100g – this is a really optimistic target since although even the best* (in terms of their sodium content) breads contain more than double this!
Try adding flavour to your meals with herbs and spices and simply opt for homemade over commercial wherever possible.