humans have been called "sea water wrapped in skin." When we evolved from ocean to land creatures, we took the mother of all earthly life with us in our body fluids.
That's why salt, though sometimes disdained by the health-conscious, is necessary to life. We need sodium for good digestion, to keep our muscles, including our heart, contracting, and for a healthy nervous system. Chloride, salt's other component, is essential for healthy digestion and acid-alkaline balance. Salt is such a necessity for our bodies, in fact, that it has played a huge role in history, spawning trade routes, wars and state taxes as far back as 20 centuries BC in China.
But for some, too much salt can be very dangerous -- it can exacerbate high blood pressure (in more black people than white) and leach calcium from the bones. Some folks are prone to water retention from consuming the white crystals.
The average Canadian eats 13/4 teaspoons daily -- almost twice as much as we need, which is about one teaspoon (2-3 grams.) It's easy to overload, since most packaged food is full of salt -- even health-food items like veggie burgers and canned soups.
If you want to salt your food, some holistic practitioners recommend using "whole salt," which is harvested from the ocean through evaporation in toxin-clearing clay-lined ponds.
Unlike regular refined table salt, whole salt still contains all the minerals floating around in seawater and healthy bodies. Its advocates also say it's easier for the body to absorb and utilize whole salt, meaning it's less likely to cause water retention or exacerbate hypertension. But they concede that no research studies have been done to support these clinical observations.
Another advantage of whole salt is its delicious, satisfying taste. (As a user myself, I can no longer abide the bitter taste of regular table salts.)
But unlike most table salts, whole salt isn't iodine-fortified, so long-term use without another iodine source in your diet might land your thyroid in trouble, though it's doubtful because salt is so prevalent everywhere. Those who stay away from packaged foods or restaurants, though, should eat iodine-rich sea vegetables like kelp, kombu, dulse, wakame and nori.
Finally, if you want the mineral spectrum found in whole salt, be aware that the term "sea salt' can refer to both refined and unrefined salt. You can tell whole salt by the fact that it's grey and comes in the form of a brine.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Trace minerals (in whole salt) are present in such minute amounts that it's not comparable to eating whole grains or fruit. If the taste of whole salt allows it to go further and results in using less overall, than that's really the bottom line. Taking less salt is a general recommendation. People who carry excess weight around the middle tend to be more sodium sensitive, and that can affect blood pressure. Instead of depending on salt, we should be trying to boost flavour with things like parsley, garlic, cumin and cilantro. Research shows that there are a lot of disease-fighting compounds in these foods."
ROSIE SCHWARTZ, dietitian
"Sodium chloride (in ordinary salt) causes water retention and raises blood pressure. But whole sea salt doesn't. The reason for that is that it's in balance with what is already in our body. When you make an ocean salt, you have all the minerals found on the planet, including the rare earth elements. A lot are bound to organic compounds, which makes them more absorbable."
ANTHONY GODFREY, naturopath
"Studies have not been done yet, but the results that (some) doctors are getting with their patients confirm why we think whole salt is important to import. To make regular table salt, all the minerals are removed from mined salt and then the by-product, pure sodium chloride, is sold to the consumer. Adding iodine to sodium chloride turns it purple, so they have to bleach it. When they bleach it, it turns bitter and they have to add dextrose to make it palatable. Anti-caking agents help to manage the moisture in salt. Well, it's doing the same thing to our bodies -- it disturbs our fluid metabolism. When you add synthetic iodine to sodium chloride, our adrenal glands don't know how to process it.'
SELINA DELANGRE, CEO of the Grain and Salt Society
"I'm an advocate of people using salt to taste. There's no better way to say what the body needs than by taste. However, this requires some modicum of balance in the body chemistry. If there are aversions or cravings, the chemistry is too out-of-balance to trust the taste. (Ordinary) salt -- refined sodium chloride -- is a drug. It stresses the body. Every case of hypertension I've ever worked with I've put the person on whole salt to taste along with other recommendations, and in all cases blood pressure went down."
LYNNE AUGUST, MD, Newfane, Vermont
The regulations say that salt for general household use must contain .01 per cent potassium iodine. The Canadian food supply doesn't have a natural dietary source of iodine. A lack of iodine can lead to thyroid problems. Iodine was introduced into salt to counter iodine deficiency in the diet. It became mandatory in salt, both table and substitutes, in 1949. The iodine added to table salt is bioavailable.
MARGOT GEDULD, spokesperson, Health Canada