WTF is Table Salt?
When we think of salt, we typically think of table salt, or sodium chloride. Table salt is about 97% sodium chloride and 3% other things like anti-caking agents. No, salt will not turn into a delicious cake if anti-caking agents such as magnesia, silicon dioxide, and tricalcium phosphate were not added; instead, the salt may clump up due to absorbing ambient water or oils. The anti-caking agents prevent this clumping from occurring.
Standard table salt is highly refined; all of the trace minerals are removed in the refining process, although iodine is sometimes added back to the salt. This was done as a public health effort to ensure that iodine was being consumed by everyone in sufficient quantities, as iodine deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism (deficiency of thyroid hormone production), goiter (thyroid gland enlargement), and cretinism (severe mental and physical retardation).
What Are the Other Types of Salts Available & Which is the Best?
There are several types of salts available on the market today. They are standard table salt (iodized or non-iodized), sea salt, Celtic or Gray Sea Salt, Himalayan or Pink Salt, Hawaiian Salt, and Real Salt. All salts contain mostly sodium chloride; the unrefined varieties contain less sodium chloride than standard table salt. In addition to sodium chloride, they contain many trace minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Standard table salt is produced by taking natural salts or crude oil flakes and heating them at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. What I mean by crude oil flakes is that when digging for oil there is a residue that apparently gets on equipment that can be processed into salt. The salt is then bleached to give it its white color. Additionally, the anti-caking agents I mentioned earlier along with other additives such as sugar and MSG may be added into the salt. Why this is done still has me scratching my head – I have no idea. I assume it must be a cost-effective way to produce salt.
The other types of salts are much less refined, although sea salt, depending on the source, may also be highly refined. Celtic or Gray Sea Salt appears to be a type which is minimally processed. It comes from the ocean, but as you may know, most oceans are full of pollutants such as heavy metals, plastics, petroleum products, and so forth. The salts coming from the ocean may contain these contaminants as well. Hawaiian salts are traditionally evaporated from the ocean water in Hawaii and contain sodium chloride along with many other trace minerals. Today, the majority of Hawaiian salts sold are not produced via this traditional process but are instead highly refined. Himalayan or Pink Salt is harvested from an ancient salt deposit in Pakistan and is unrefined – it contains over 80 trace minerals. Real Salt comes from a salt deposit in Utah and is similar to Himalayan Salt in its chemical properties. Both Real Salt and Himalayan/Pink Salt appear to be the most trusted sources of salt available as they provide sodium chloride, trace minerals, are unrefined and source from unpolluted areas (they do not contain any toxic substances). They are significant sources of sodium and chloride and not significant sources of iodine.
Is Salt Bad for Us?
Pure, unrefined salt at the appropriate dosage is essential for proper functioning of the body. Salt is not just good for us, it is essential for our nervous system and muscles to work correctly. The chloride in salt incorporates into the hydrochloric acid (HCl) secreted by parietal cells in our stomachs. HCl destroys potentially pathogenic organisms before they enter our small intestine; HCl also allows for the activation of enzymes which allow us to break down and utilize dietary proteins.
Salt is bad for us when it contains toxic substances and consumed in excessive quantities. Unfortunately, most Americans are eating highly processed salts in very high quantities, which can lead to things like high blood pressure and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
How Much Salt (Sodium) Do We Need Each Day?
The adequate intake is set at 1,500 mg/day and the upper level intake at 2,300 mg/day. So, according to our standards, we need about ¾ of a teaspoon of salt each day, and should not exceed one teaspoon.
The average intake of salt for an American is 3,400 mg/day. That’s more than two times the recommended amount. Seventy-five percent of this sodium is coming from processed foods, 15 percent is coming from salt added during cooking, and 10 percent from salt found naturally in foods.
The moral of that story is don’t eat processed foods. You get way more salt than you need. And on the contrary, when you are not eating processed foods, you may actually be getting too little salt. It’s kind of weird to think of a healthy diet as a potential risk factor for sodium and chloride deficiency, but in my experience this is actually the case.
In reality, the amount of salt you need to be adding to your food and/or beverages is dependent on several factors. First and most obvious is that if you eat a lot of processed foods you are getting plenty of sodium and chloride. A second factor that should not be overlooked is how much you are sweating each day. This is dependent on your activity level, the type of climate that you are in, your personal threshold for sweating… there are many factors to consider and it’s virtually impossible to determine exactly how much sweat you are losing. Just know that if you are working hard in a hot environment, you are losing a significant amount of salt. Other factors are the amount of water you are drinking, whether or not you are sensitive to salt, whether or not you have a pre-existing condition, and your diet.
A brief discussion on what I just mentioned. One study found that people working in hot conditions for 10 hours on average lose between 4.8 and 6 grams of sodium equivalent to 10-15 grams of salt. With that being said, if you only consumed 1.5 grams of salt under such conditions, you would be at a loss for salt. That would be really bad. So in this case, it appears that consuming 10-15 grams of salt would be perfectly fine as it would match your needs. That is a hypothesis based on logic and to the best of my knowledge has not been proven. Now, if you continued doing that in the winter when you are not sweating, you would have way more salt than you need, and would have to excrete it. What is interesting about human physiology is that it appears that no matter what your salt intake is, your body tightly regulates the amount of salt in the blood. If you become dehydrated, the renin-angitoensin-aldosterone system works to increase the reabsorption of sodium. Anti-diuretic hormone can also increase the reabsorption of sodium. In theory, it makes sense to match the amount of salt you are losing with the amount of salt you consume so that you do not have to activate these homeostatic mechanisms which tax the adrenal glands. But even if you do not consume as much as you are losing these compensatory mechanisms will ensure that you do not die. And in-line with this discussion, if you increase your intake of water without increasing the intake of salt under conditions in which you are sweating profusely it could lead to hyponatremia (low blood sodium).
Additionally, some individuals are sensitive to salt, so if the amount of salt is consumed beyond what is needed there may be a significant increase in blood pressure. In other individuals whom are salt-resistant, they can consume massive amounts of salt without it affecting their blood pressure. To the best of my knowledge testing for salt sensitivity is not standard in clinical practice and there does not appear to be an easy way to determine salt sensitivity.
Furthermore, those eating low-carb or ketogenic diets have an increased need for dietary salt. This is because carbohydrate consumption stimulates insulin secretion by the pancreas, and insulin increases sodium reabsorption in the kidney. So, when we eat carbs, we tend to hold on to sodium. Conversely, when we do not eat carbs, insulin is not secreted, and we therefore tend to excrete more salt.
And lastly, some studies have shown that consuming sodium at levels below 2.3 g/day may be unsafe in individuals with certain medical conditions including diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease.
So, HOW MUCH SALT DO I NEED?
The answer is, I don’t know. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop? The world may never know…
I’m being dramatic. I do have some guidance in how to determine the proper amount of salt to consume. It is based on scientific research and personal experience.
First, consider that factors I included:
- Am I consuming processed foods?
- How much am I sweating? (A lot or not a lot)
- Am I on a low-carb or ketogenic diet?
- Am I consuming a lot of water?
- Do I have a pre-existing condition?
I have found from experience that a good way to know if I’m getting enough salt or not is the following: if I’m having muscle twitching or cramps I know I am not getting enough electrolytes. Important physiological electrolytes include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Sodium and chloride are heavily concentrated in all forms of salt. The other minerals, potassium, magnesium, and calcium are also essential in muscle contraction. It is not fully understood what causes a muscle cramp but it appears that an imbalance or deficiency in these electrolytes are a cause. In my experience, I’ve noticed that I have muscle twitching and cramping when I am active and sweating more than usual. This signals to me to increase my intake of salt and to increase my consumption of the other electrolytes. Additionally, I know if I have a headache or feel a sense of confusion, my sodium level is low.
To be clear, electrolyte intake levels are considered to be adequate in the following quanitites:
- Potassium – 4,700 mg/day
- Magnesium – 400-420 mg/day (men); 310-320 mg/day (women)
- Calcium – 1,000 mg/day; not to exceed 2500 mg/day
- Salt (Sodium Chloride) – About ¾ teaspoon per day
The Food and Nutrition Board recommend electrolytes in these amounts and this is considered balanced. As sweating increases it makes sense, in theory, to increase the amounts of these electrolytes as deemed appropriate by the feedback you are getting from your body. If you are cramping up, increasing your intake makes sense. If you are performing well, then your levels are likely adequate. Fortunately, there do not appear to be risks of consuming high amounts of potassium and magnesium from food, although supplementation poses a risk for toxicity. Calcium poses a risk above 2500 mg/day, and consuming too much salt may pose health risks.
It is also difficult to provide precise recommendations because only 2% of Americans are getting adequate amounts of potassium on a daily basis. Salt intake tends to be high in most people. We would need to do more studies to determine what balance of electrolytes prevents muscle twitching and cramping and enhances athletic performance.
What we do know is that having the proper sodium/potassium in the body helps to normalize blood pressure, decrease the risk of stroke, and decrease the risk of dying from all diseases in general. When foods are processed the amount of sodium is increased significantly and potassium is decreased significantly, which provides the opposite of the desired sodium/potassium ratio which needs to be achieved for promoting health.
Practical Tips for Getting Salt & Electrolytes You Need
So, let’s put this all together. Eating processed foods is bad – too much sodium, not enough potassium. We need a proper balance of all electrolytes. Get sodium/chloride from a salt like Real Salt, not traditional table salt. ¾ – 1 teaspoon of salt a day will likely be sufficient which is based on our recommended standards, although populations consuming 1 1/3 – 2 2/3 teaspoons (2600 mg sodium – about 6500 mg sodium) of salt per day appear to be at the lowest risk of developing heart disease, strokes, and dying from early deaths; these intakes are coupled with low intakes of dietary sugar.
It’s probably a good idea to add some salt to your water, 1/2 tsp to 1 L of water is about the amount the average person loses during an hour of vigorous exercise. You could also do something like 1/2 a tsp coated with lemon juice plus two ounces of water before a bout of strenuous exercise – this is what Dr. James DiNicolantonio, author of The Salt Fix suggests to enhance exercise performance. He then recommends drinking unsalted water until your thirst is quenched after you drink the salt/lemon juice mixture. You can apply salt liberally to your foods as well. If you’re doing ketogenic or low carb diet, increasing salt by 2 grams a day to the amount of salt you typically consume should be fine especially during the first two weeks of starting the new diet. This is because your body is adapted to the sodium retaining effects that come with having high insulin levels (which are present due to high circulating glucose from high carb diets). Once you reduce carbohydrate consumption significantly your kidneys have to adjust to retaining sodium without the aid of insulin – this may take some time. So, in those first few weeks, you are likely to excrete a lot of sodium – and water follows sodium. This can lead to dehydration and symptoms of the “ketones flu.” So, in theory, it makes sense to increase water and sodium intake when adjusting to a ketogenic or low-carb diet. Remember, an additional 2 grams of salt a day is the equivalent to about 1 more teaspoon. Dr. DiNicolantonio states that 5-7 grams (2 1/3 tsps – a little over 3 tsps) of salt per day is typically well suited for individuals on a ketogenic diet.
Foods, unless they are processed, don’t contain much salt. And salt is essential, we must consume it. It has been mined and traded for thousands of years. And before agricultural times, our ancestors likely got their salt from seafood and doing things like drinking the blood of the animals they consumed.
To get the recommended amount of potassium in a day, you’d need to consume one raw California avocado, a medium baked potato with the skin, 2 cups of spinach, and 2.5 cups of acorn squash. It’s definitely possible.
Magnesium can be absorbed through the skin, which is swell. Take an Epsom salt bath or go in the ocean. Eat a ½ bar of dark chocolate, 2 oz of almonds, 2 cups of boiled spinach, and 1 cup of black beans and you will have met your daily need without the need for the Epsom salt bath or visit to the ocean.
Eat 8 ounces of whole fat yogurt, a cup of turnip greens, and 4 oz of sardines with bones and you will have met your calcium needs for the day.
For the summer months look up some recipes for electrolyte replacement drinks. Here are two:
- Passion-Orange Drink – 1 cup Tazo passion tea; juice of 5 oranges; ½ tbsp honey; 1/8 tsp Real salt
- Coconut Citrus Drink – 1 liter coconut water, juice of 3 limes, juice of 1 lemon, juice of 1 blood orange, 1/8 tsp real salt, 1 tsp maple syrup
Of course, there are other combinations you can make based on what food you have and the season etc… I just wanted to provide examples to show you that it is possible.