The shaker of salt sits unassumingly in the spice rack—a commonplace seasoning whose grainy lightness lacks the dazzle of trendy turmeric, dusky Saigon cinnamon and smoldering smoked paprika. We take that shaker’s ubiquitous presence in our cabinets, on our tables and in our food for granted, looking upon salt not so much as a spice, but as a culinary staple. And that it is: a humble, oft-used staple. Certain that anything is better with a dash of salt, we sprinkle it on our plates with confident abandon—after all, what constitutes a just-right serving of the savory seasoning is simply a matter of taste.
To salt or not salt your food—with either a light or heavy hand—is definitely subjective, most of us would agree. We know that a touch of the stuff takes a steak from great to sensational, transforms a tart grapefruit into pure sweetness and adds a palate-pleasing pop to popcorn. But issues relating to health and nutrition add their own flavor to matters of the saliferous sort. Contradictory scientific and medical research warns us against eating too much salt—and not enough. Case in point: A 2005 report from the nonprofit Institute of Medicine serves as the basis for the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy published jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those guidelines advise limiting our daily salt intake to between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon) or hazard the triple threat of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. The proposed 2015 Dietary Guidelines go even further and recommend that we restrict salt consumption to a mere 500 milligrams per day. It’s safe to say that by now, most consumers have gotten the message that less is better when it comes to salt. But lest we feel too complacent, the aforementioned Institute of Medicine has once again gone and muddied the waters with an August report postulating—drum roll, please—that there’s no rationale for lowering daily sodium levels below the currently accepted minimum levels.
The sodium issue grows all the more confusing when you survey the array of salt on shelves in the spice aisle. Along with mainstays such as iodized and kosher salt, the past several years have introduced us to a host of gourmet and specialty salts—among them Himalayan pink salt, gray Celtic sea salt and hand-harvested fleur de sel—whose purportedly richer mineral contents (usually minute traces of magnesium, calcium and potassium) are marketed as health-enhancing. In reality, differences between the types of salt lie mostly in processing, explains dietitian-nutritionist Margaret Pauly of the Arkansas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Ordinary table salt is highly processed and combined with an anti-clumping agent so that it pours easily from a shaker. (It may also be treated with iodine, which can be beneficial for thyroid health.) Sea salt is extracted from sea water, but otherwise unrefined to maintain its coarse and tacky texture. The variety of hues of specialty salts is the result of minerals at their source: iron oxide in the salt mines of Pakistan (not the Himalayas, despite the name) account for Himalayan salt’s pink tinge. As for kosher salt, it’s simply a large-grained salt that was originally prepared to meet strict kosher dietary standards.
But no matter the texture or taste, salt is salt is salt. Whether sprinkling sea salt or table salt or Himalayan pink salt on your food, all that matters is the sodium chloride, says Pauly. And sodium in any form that’s consumed in excess can change the level of fluid in our blood, which in turn alters blood pressure and adversely affects cardiovascular health.
When keeping an eye on how much salt we add to our food, Pauly says, we should keep in mind that what pours from our salt shakers amounts to only one-fourth of our sodium consumption each day. Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says more than 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from eating packaged and restaurant foods—chips and salsa, corned beef, salted nuts, canned soups, and fast-food burgers and fries.
We do love our conveniences, and the more convenient a food is, unfortunately, it’s probably giving us some health problems,” Pauly says. She notes that food doesn’t have to taste salty to contain sodium—think bread and pastries. Salt is everywhere, to the extent that Americans’ consumption skews upward to an average of 3,400 milligrams a day. So don’t expect the Institute of Medicine’s new report to turn the U.S. Dietary Guidelines on their head. Pauly—along the American Heart Association and other groups—will continue to advocate adherence to current limits. Keeping your sodium intake within the recommended 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams, she says, boils down to choices: When you can, prepare food yourself, and take it easy on the salt. When buying packaged foods, take time to read the label, paying attention to sodium content and choosing the one with fewer milligrams.
“I tell people to use common sense,” Pauly says. “I still believe we should follow the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. I’m not changing my advice based on one report.”