It can preserve a body, blow up a fortress and season a Sunday roast – it’s salt, the oldest mineral on earth. Ten thousand years after humans first consumed it, it’s as controversial as ever.
While ancient Egyptian monarchs used it to mummify themselves and preserve fish and fruit for the long trip into the afterlife, modern-day government officials are much more circumspect about salt, especially in the American diet.
Long believers that salt can lead to hypertension and heart disease, American doctors must decide whether to recommend in the 2015 dietary guidelines that salt intake remain at mere teaspoon a day or bow to growing numbers of studies that show eating too little salt actually can be harmful.
Salt consumption varies across the globe, with the Yanomami Indians of Brazil consuming almost none at .005 grams, the average U.S. diner eating about a teaspoon and a half (3.4 grams) a day and the everyday Kazakh downing almost a tablespoon (6 grams).
Here’s why doctors worry so much about salt: While the body needs it to function, sodium can make us retain fluid, causing membranes to swell and blood flow to slow, which can lead to heart disease.
Yet, more scientists say the dietary guidelines’ restrictions on salt aren’t based on scientific evidence. New studies show that a healthy person can consume up to 6 grams a day without harm.
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine following more than 100,000 people found that those who stuck to the recommended teaspoon a day had more heart trouble than those who ate between 3 and 4 grams a day.
Local cardiologist Bruce Andrea splits the difference, advising his patients without serious heart disease to limit their intake to 4 to 5 grams a day. (Those with heart problems must maintain a diet of no more than 2 grams.)
“Our bodies need salt,” he said. “It helps our cells conduct a lot of important processes.”
To meet that goal, he counsels against eating all our favorite foods – salty snacks, fast food meals and that college kid’s staple, ramen noodles – which hide copious amounts of sodium chloride.
In fact, one study shows that three-quarters of all salt in the American diet is sequestered in processed foods, from bread to frozen dinners to lunch meat. The rest arrives in the form of the salt shaker, whether at the stove or the table, and foods like ham, yogurt and eggs, which are naturally high in salt.
But, Andrea says – and you might be surprised by this – while many of his patients fret about consuming too much salt, most naturally stay within his prescribed 4 to 5 gram limit.
Naturopath Nancy Utter agrees.
“Everybody is so freaked out by the salt thing,” she said. “It’s like eggs. We know it’s not true that they’re unhealthy, but those old ideas die hard.”
Unless her patients have hypertension or cardiovascular issues, Utter doesn’t emphasize restricting salt. Furthermore, she points out that athletes, especially those hiking, running and cycling in the Southwest’s arid climate, should replace the salt they lose exercising.
She’s an athlete, too, and after a summer bike ride through the La Platas, she craves salt.
“Without salt, my body can’t use water to clean up and detoxify and keep everything working well,” she said.
Utter and Andrea concur that if you eat fast food and snack on chips more than occasionally, you’re probably eating more salt than your body needs. They agree, too, that cooking food from scratch is the best way to keep your salt intake within bounds and still get enough to fuel a healthy body. Even low-sodium soups have a lot more salt than if you made that chicken noodle yourself.
But not all salt is created equal.
Sea salt contains important trace minerals and nutrients, say local nutritionists, while table salt generally is refined to leave them out. Andrea, however, questions the value of differentiating between the two when it comes to determining how much to eat, because sea salt and table salt affect the body in the same way.
OK, we’ve made the health argument, now let’s consider why we use salt in food. In the average American diet, sugar, fat and salt are far more essential food groups than vegetables, starches and proteins.
Imagine a scrambled egg without a speck of salt (horrid) or a potato chip (unimaginable) or a scrumptious steak (ghastly). Why would you do that to yourself? I’d just as soon go hungry.
“Salt should taste,” said local naturopath Nicola St. Mary. “If you’re craving salt, cook with it, rather than eating crap food attached to crap salt.”
The message here is that salt makes food taste good, whether it’s in your own kitchen or out of a fast-food box.
A more worrying consideration may be that salt preserves food – its original use in the ancient world was to keep protein and vegetables from spoiling – meaning you have to wonder just how long ago that hamburger was cooked.
Modern scientists are reformulating the way they think about salt. The 21st century has seen researchers backtrack on misguided assumptions about other bogeyman foods like butter, sugar and eggs – delicious, all. So put down those salt-free chips and join me for a french fry night on the town.