‘Pass me the salt and pepper please!’ This all too familiar phrase rings clear at most family meals. Has it become habit or is it numbed taste buds driving us to salt overuse and abuse? Or is it perhaps ignorance of the effect that salt has on our health if not used in moderation?
Initially, salt was used as a preservative to extend shelf life, but today, mainly for taste reasons, its use is driven by consumer demand. It is thus not the food industry that should be blamed for the salt overload in processed food, but us, the consumers! In our modern diets, the dietary sodium to potassium ratio has been grossly distorted by the omission of high potassium foods, the removal of potassium through processing and cooking, and the lacing of food with salt and other high-sodium substances, hence the ratio between sodium and potassium is more important than the amounts.
SODIUM AND POTASSIUM RATIO
Failure in maintaining the right relationship and ratios between sodium and potassium can have serious health consequences. A sodium and potassium imbalance results in, for example, limited ability of the body to use vital micro-nutrients from food or supplements. And the balance between these two minerals determines the osmotic pressure and ionic strength of a cell, and of the body fluids, like blood and the fluid between the cells. They thus control the movement of water in and out of the cells and tissues, and are involved in preventing water retention (such as swelling of the legs) and oedema. A potassium deficiency allows more sodium to enter the cells. The additional sodium increases the water inside the cells, producing oedema and cell damage.
What then determines the ratio of potassium and sodium in the body? Our diet! Primitive diets of our prehistoric ancestors consisted of only unprocessed foods and some meat. Such a diet is relatively low in sodium and high in potassium. Throughout evolution, the kidneys have adapted to actively excrete excess potassium and to carefully conserve supplies of sodium.
CAUSES OF LOW POTASSIUM LEVELS
Sodium is well retained by the body, but the following factors will deplete potassium levels over a period of time:
- diuretic drugs or ‘water pills’
- alcohol consumption
- coffee drinking
- excess sugar intake
We need more potassium in our diet than sodium, but in our modern over-processed Western diet, sodium intake is high and potassium usually very low. Potassium-rich foods are unprocessed vegetables, fruits, seeds, pulses and wholegrains. In general, natural wholefoods contain little sodium and more potassium. However, we have reversed this balance inherent in nature by adding salt (sodium) to our food.
Excess sodium levels are caused by:
- Milk consumption
- Food processing, as table salt (sodium chloride) is added to almost all processed food for taste
- Preservatives, such as: baking powder, MSG, hydrolysed vegetable or animal protein (in stock cubes, savoury pastes, gravy powder, canned and packet soups and many meat products). Even nutritional supplements may contain sodium, such as sodium ascorbate (vitamin C) and bicarbonate of soda (sodium bicarbonate)
- Lack of fresh and raw fruit, vegetables, seeds and pulses in the diet
Symptoms of sodium excess
- pre-menstrual tension
- headaches over the eyes
- sinus and chest problems (especially in men)
- hay fever
- legs tend to swell – alleviated by lying down or putting one’s feet up
- general puffiness and swelling of the lower abdomen
- aching of muscles and joints
- difficulty sleeping
- poor concentration
- itchy skin
- greasy hair and dandruff
- desire for salt and salty foods – yes, the more sodium in your cells, the more salt you crave!
- frequent colds
- loss of calcium from bone and possible deposition in soft tissues
- passing water frequently in the morning, prior to 11 am.
- heavy periods or miscarriages
- acidosis – acidic body
Symptoms of potassium depletion
- irritability and mental confusion (due to effects on nervous system)
- oedema (swelling of tissues or organs)
- muscular weakness (mostly in elderly people)
- paralysis of small intestine muscles, causing abdominal distension
- disturbance of heart rhythm
- bone and joint pains
- raised blood pressure
Choose potassium-rich foods daily
Coconut water, avocado, potatoes and bananas all top the list of good sources of potassium.
HEALTHY SALT SOURCES
The body’s need for sodium should be met by sodium from organic sources which will normalise, not disrupt, the balance of other minerals in the body. Such sources would promote the excretion of excess sodium that has accumulated from the excessive intake of inorganic salt (table salt). Good sources of organic sodium are: celery, cauliﬂower and root vegetables.
IS ALL SALT BAD FOR US?
Yes since all salt will favour sodium overload We should limit the addition of any salt to our food. Sea salt and other ‘healthy salt substitutes’, such as biosalt (sodium chloride combined with salts of potassium), still throw out the sodium to potassium balance by providing excess sodium to the diet. Nevertheless, if you are healthy and enjoying a balanced, unprocessed wholefood diet, unreﬁned and additive-free mined or harvested rock, desert or sea salt could be added to food sparingly. These unreﬁned salts contain naturally occurring trace minerals, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium, therefore adding nutrient value.
Table salt or ‘iodised salt’ is not a healthy naturally occurring rock, crystal or sea salt. It is a manufactured type of sodium called sodium chloride with added iodide. Iodine in salt available at grocery stores, restaurants, and in practically all processed foods, has added synthetic chemicals such as fluoride, toxic amounts of potassium iodide, anti-caking agents and aluminium derivatives. Table salt has also been bleached. Unfortunately, most table salt is not only unhealthy, but is toxic to the body and should never be considered as a source of healthy iodine. Synthetically added iodine leads to an iodine overload in our Western diet, contributing to numerous health problems. On the contrary, unrefined salts have no added chemicals and contain a more balanced ratio of trace minerals.
Because unrefined artisan and sea salts usually have more dramatic flavour and texture, one can use them in much smaller amounts than white table salt. The following salt varieties are options to enhance your favourite foods, if used sparingly: Kala namak, Fleur de sel, Grey salt, Cyprus black salt, Peruvian and Himalayan pink salt, and Hawaiian red alaea sea salt. In choosing unrefined salts you may also be supporting smaller businesses and social enterprises, which makes the choice not only healthy but also ethical, especially if you choose locally sourced salts over those that are produced far away. Make sure the salt is harvested or mined from pristine areas and does not contain heavy metals. The source must be sustainable and renewable. Our best South African local options would be various sea salts and Kalahari desert salt.
25 TIPS ON WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR LEFTOVER SALT
- Sprinkle salt on your shelves to keep ants away.
- Test the freshness of eggs in a cup of salt water; fresh eggs sink; bad ones float.
- Add a little salt to your boiling water when cooking eggs; a cracked egg will stay in its shell this way.
- Soak toothbrushes in salt water before you first use them; they will last longer.
- Use salt to clean your discoloured coffee pot.
- Clean brass, copper and pewter with paste made of salt and vinegar, thickened with flour.
- Add a little salt to the water your cut flowers stand in – they will last longer.
- Pour a mound of salt on an ink spot on your carpet; let the salt soak up the stain.
- Clean your iron by rubbing some salt on the damp cloth on the ironing surface.
- Use a mixture of salt and lemon juice to clean piano keys.
- Mildly salted water makes an effective mouthwash. Use it warm for a sore throat gargle.
- Use salt for killing weeds in your lawn.
- Rub any wicker furniture you may have with salt water to prevent yellowing.
- Freshen sponges by soaking them in salt water.
- Soak enamel pans in salt water overnight and boil salt water in them the next day to remove burned-on stains.
- Soak discoloured glass in a salt and vinegar solution to remove stains.
- Clean greasy pans with a paper towel and salt.
- Boil mismatched pantyhose in salty water and they will come out matched.
- Salt and baking soda will sweeten the odour of your refrigerator.
- Cover wine-stained fabric with salt; rinse in cool water later.
- Remove offensive odours from the stove with salt and cinnamon.
- To remove grease stains in clothing, mix one part salt to four parts alcohol.
- Salt and lemon juice removes mildew.
- Sprinkle salt between sidewalk bricks where you don’t want grass growing.
- Remove odours from sink drainpipes with a strong, hot solution of salt water.
A balanced, unprocessed, wholefood diet would provide the correct ratio of sodium to potassium to ensure optimum health, without the need to add salt in any form. We need more potassium than sodium in the diet. When you cook, gradually lower the amount of salt each time you cook, so your palate eventually gets used to less. In due course you will have weaned yourself off the taste for highly salty foods. Pep up a meal’s flavour creatively by using herbs and spices, such as garlic, ginger and lemon grass.