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Salt: Everything you need to know

For many years, healthcare professionals have warned against the dangers of too much salt. The conventional wisdom has stated that eating salt is linked to several health problems. For example, salt intake is one of the things that leads to high blood pressure and makes high blood pressure worse if you already have it. 

More recent evidence seems to contradict this conventional wisdom. Doctors are beginning to see that we need some salt in our diet. Too little salt can lead to other types of health problems. Our bodies require a certain amount of salt in order to function properly. 

The fact is, salt is one of those elemental foods substances that has been with humanity forever. Of the things, we have come to add to our food, whether in cooking or eating things raw, salt is the primary ingredient. 

How much do we know about salt? What exactly is salt? Are there different types of salt, and are some better than others? In this guide, we will take a look at the most common thing in our kitchen: simple salt and how it works in the body. This guide will give you the information you need to make informed decisions about salt. 

What is Salt?

The most common type of salt, common table salt, is an ionic compound of sodium chloride. It is a natural constituent of seawater. Salt is formed when an acid and a base neutralize each other. Chemically, the acid and the base break apart and the positively charged elements bond with the negatively charged elements.

Salt gives food a piquancy and flavor. It tends to accentuate other flavors added to food. Salt is also used as a preservative. Salt is one of the oldest preservation methods known since salts of all kinds inhibit the growth of bacteria and other microbes that cause food to spoil.  

Common table salt, or NaCl, is often mixed with other spicy and herbs to make things like celery salt and garlic salt. These can be added to cooking to create different flavors and the salt adds emphasis to milder flavors like celery. 

The most common table salt contains added iodine. This is added to prevent iodine deficiency since iodine can be a difficult mineral to obtain in an ordinary diet, and iodine is a necessary mineral for life. 

You may encounter different types of salt in the supermarket. One of the more common types, one that is often named in recipes, is kosher salt. This comes in a larger, coarser grain. It is still sodium chloride, but kosher salt typically does not contain added iodine. 

Sea Salt. Sea salt is made from evaporated seawater. It is unrefined and coarse-grained. Sea salt generally contains other elements like zinc, potassium, and iron. This gives sea salt a more complex flavor profile, and this is why sea salt is often favored by chefs. 

Himalayan Pink Salt. Recently, some specialty salts have been appearing on the market. Himalayan pink salt is one of these. It is harvested primarily from the Khewra Salt Mine in the Himalayan Mountains. It has a pink to off-white color. Since Himalayan pink salt contains more than 80 natural minerals that are found in the human body it has become part of spa treatment. It is also a feature in the gourmet kitchen. 

Celtic Sea Salt. Sometimes called seagrass, the French for grey salt, Celtic sea salt is harvested from tidal ponds off the coast of France. Celtic sea salt is generally moist and flaky and has large grains. It has a briny flavor that lends itself to cooking meats and fish. It is also a favorite in baking. 

There are many more types of salt. Any set of elements that bind with a positive and negative ion forms salts. Some salts are used exclusively in medical and scientific arenas. 

Salt uses

There are countless uses for salt. Since salt is elemental for all life, it has found its way into almost every aspect of life. From cooking to healthcare, salt is a staple of how we live. But there are some common uses for salt. 

The most common use for salt is in cooking. Common table salt gives piquancy and flavor to all kinds of foods, including raw foods. Small quantities of salt in baking can even accentuate the sweetness of pastries. Salt can play many roles in the kitchen. Here are a few life hacks that feature salt:

  • Salt is used to aid in boiling water by making it boil at a lower temperature. This happens when salt ions interact with the water molecules and allow them to vaporize easier. Salt does not make water boil faster but lowers the boiling point of the water. The same concept is also true for freezing and another reason salt is added to ice cream.
  • Salt can be used to remove pin feathers from poultry. To do this rub the chicken skin with salt before removing the feathers. Salt will also enhance the flavor of the chicken.
  • If you have just finished chopping onions and need to remove the scent from your hands just rub some salt moistened with vinegar on your hands.
  • Salt can be used to "sweeten" and deodorize water bottles.
  • Salt will prevent food from sticking to dishes and minimize smoking. Sprinkle salt on washed skillets or griddles, heat in a warm oven, dust off the salt, and food will not stick during the next use. This is nature’s equivalent of Teflon.
  • Prevent molding of cheese by wrapping cheese in a cloth moistened with saltwater before refrigerating.
  • Adding a pinch of salt to milk will make it stay fresh longer.

Food preservation

One of the oldest uses of salt is the preservation of foods. Treated foods with salt, often called brining, infuses things like meats and fish with enough salt to prevent spoilage. If you have ever wondered why bacon is so salty it is because it is packed with salt for preservative purposes. This has the effect of making bacon taste so good. 

Cleaning

Salt is an efficient and environmentally friendly cleaning agent. You can make a salt solution to clean surfaces all over the house. Since salt naturally inhibits the growth of bacteria, it can effectively sanitize things and it helps remove dirt. 

Road salt

If you live in any northern region you see the trucks out after every snowfall. Rock salt, a large-grained salt, will cause ice and snow to melt. It is widely used for snow and ice removal. 

Medical uses 

Specific medical-grade salts are used in things like saline solutions for medical purposes. Salt will balance solutions that are introduced into the body so that the delicate balance of minerals and water in the blood and cells remains preserved. There are also salts that are used as health supplements. The elements in salts are the same things as what we call electrolytes. The electrolytes you find in things like exercise drinks are made from mineral salt. 

Therapeutic uses

Some specialty salts such as Himalayan pink salt are used in spa treatments. The multiple minerals that are in these salts are believed to provide therapeutic benefits during certain kinds of spa treatments.   

Industry 

Various types of salts are used for industrial purposes. For example, the paper industry uses large quantities of salts in the production of paper from wood. 

Sources of Salt

The most common source of salt is from seawater. The salt from seawater is extracted by evaporated seawater until all that remains are the mineral salts that make up the salinity of seawater. This is treated further to isolate sodium chloride. In other cases, the sea salts are left intact so that the myriad other minerals can be used. 

There are also geological sediments of salt which can be mined. This is generally done by pumping water into the salt sediments, then letting dry and go through a purification process.  

A rare source of salt comes from South America. The Ayoreo, an indigenous group from the Paraguayan Chaco, obtain their salt from the ash produced by burning the timber of the Indian salt tree (Maytenus Vitis-idea) and other trees. 

Salt effects on the body

We hear a lot about the dangers of salt in our diet. Salt has been linked to high blood pressure and other serious health problems. But the fact remains that salt is an essential; nutrient and provides our bodies with basic electrolytes that are necessary for proper physiological functions. 

The main issue with salt and the body involves concentrations of sodium—one half of the salt chemical. Concentrations of sodium are delicately regulated in the body, and too much sodium or too little sodium can cause serious problems. 

Sodium is necessary for things like muscle contractions, and this includes the heart muscle. When we sit or expend energy, we lose sodium. It is, therefore, necessary to keep replenishing sodium and the best way to do this is with salt. Old-fashioned methods for replenishing salt involved things like salt tablets. We now use things such as sports drinks that contain a variety of salt-based electrolytes to balance the sodium/fluid levels in our bodies. 

Sodium is also necessary to balance and regulate nerve functions and blood volume. Blood volume is measured with blood pressure. When the sodium balance is unequal, nerves cannot function properly. This includes signals to and from the brain. Unbalanced sodium levels also cause problems like high blood pressure. 

The chloride side of salt is another important electrolyte. These kinds of electrolytes carry electrical signals from nerves to other parts of the body, including the brain. Chloride is essential for nerve and brain function, among other things. 

Low chloride levels can cause what is called respiratory acidosis. This is when carbon dioxide builds up in the blood and causes the blood to become too acidic. 

Too much salt causes an overabundance of both sodium and chloride. Some people are not sensitive to this at all. In others, too much salt usually leads to water retention and this will manifest itself as bloating, swollen fingers, and other extremities. 

The most common problem with too much salt is high blood pressure. The excess of sodium causes an imbalance in blood volume. This can lead to heart attack and stroke. 

Too much salt has also been linked to stomach cancer. It is believed that excess salt causes the growth of a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, and this bacteria is linked to stomach cancer. Studies have shown that high salt intake increases the incidence of stomach cancer by as much as 69 percent. 

How much salt per day

Given the dangers of too much or too little salt intake, the guidelines for salt intake per day are specifically laid out.

For adults:

No more than 6 grams of salt per day. This is around one teaspoon. 

For Children: It varies according to age:

1-3 years: 2 grams per day

4-6 years: 3 grams per day

7-10 years: 5 grams per day

Over 11 years: 6 grams per day

Babies under one year should have no more than 1 gram per day since their kidneys are not sufficiently developed to properly process salt. 

Salt deficiency

The body loses salt through urine, perspiration, vomiting, and diarrhea. If too much salt is lost, the level of fluid in the blood will drop. Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when the sodium in your blood falls below the normal range. In severe cases, low sodium levels in the body can lead to muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Eventually, the lack of salt can lead to shock, coma, and death.

Salt FAQs

What is salt? 

The most common type of salt, common table salt, is an ionic compound of sodium chloride. It is a natural constituent of seawater. Salt is formed when an acid and a base neutralize each other. Chemically, the acid and the base break apart and the positively charged elements bond with the negatively charged elements.

What are the uses of salt? 

Salt is primarily used in food preparation. It can be used as a cleaning and sanitizing chemical. Salt is also used to melt ice and snow on roads. There is also a vast array of medical uses for salt. 

Are there different types of salt? 

There are numerous varieties of salt. The most common are table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, and pink Himalayan salt. Celtic salt is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. 

Is salt important to our health? 

A proper balance of salt in our diet and our bodies is necessary for health. 

What happens when we get too much salt?

Excess salt can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stomach cancer. 

Conclusion

There are few things more ubiquitous than common salt. Table salt is on nearly every table and in nearly every spice rack in America. Table salt is the elemental ingredient in almost any form of cooking. The simple chemical sodium chloride is the bedrock of cooking, baking, and preserving food and has been for millennia. 

But table salt is only the beginning. There are countless varieties of salt because salt is nothing more than the result of a simple chemical reaction between a positive element and a negative element. Sodium and chlorine are only two of the myriad forms that salt can take. 

The varieties of salt available are also many. From Pink Himalayan salt to Celtic sea salt, our choices of salt have increased over the years, and this gives cooks everywhere a new palette for cuisine. Some of the specialty salts have added health benefits due to the many minerals present in these salt varieties. 

Salt is also essential for life. We require a certain amount of salt from our bodies to function properly. From brain and nerve functions to blood pressure, salt is instrumental in keeping these things working correctly. We also know that an imbalance of salt is dangerous. Too much salt leads to serious health issues. Too little salt can create problems that are just as dangerous. 

The key to salt is balance. Keep your salt intake at a moderate level, and salt will provide the basis for good health. 

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