Check your salt
When Cordelia, the youngest of the monarch’s three daughters in William Shakespeare’s famous play King Lear, was asked to profess her love for her father in return for one-third of his kingdom, she claimed she loved him more than salt—the fundamental tastemaker in food. That’s how prized, vital and intrinsic salt is to our palate. Your body needs an optimum amount of salt for its daily functions because the components of salt—sodium and chloride—are necessary to extract nutrients from food. But you should have the correct type of salt, and in the right proportion.
Why you need it
All of us lose sodium through sweat and urine. Salt plays an important role in replacing this. Sodium consumed through salt facilitates the absorption of proteins into the bloodstream, influencing cell membrane permeability. “But excess salt is not good for proper protein metabolism. Some proteins act as transporters in cell communication. Excess sodium levels in the body can render these transporter proteins non-functional by making changes in the structure of the protein molecules,” explains Indrayani Pawar, chief dietitian at Hinduja Healthcare Surgical, Mumbai.
Salt need not be your only source of sodium—the latter occurs naturally in many fruits, vegetables, legumes and meats.
“When you consume sodium in this unrefined form, it helps to regulate body fluids because it is an electrolyte. Such consumption helps in improving nerve function, glucose absorption, betters muscle contraction and blood regulation,” says obesity consultant and cosmetic physician Manjiri Puranik, founder and director of InstaSculpt, a non-surgical obesity and aesthetic clinic in Mumbai. An imbalance in sodium levels can lead to dehydration (when the sodium level is low) or water retention (when the sodium level is high). The sodium in salt can regulate water retention and control blood volume and pressure.
The World Health Organisation recommends a salt intake of under 5g/day (1 tsp/day). “But on an average, a normal Indian consumes 10g of salt per day, which is almost double what is recommended. Taking into consideration the amount of physical activity and the humidity, salt intake (of the refined iodized salt that we use) should not be more than 6g (approx. 1 tsp/day),” advises Pawar.
However, different salts have different sodium levels, so it is important to monitor it. “This daily (sodium) intake should not exceed 2,300mg per day,” says Chennai-based dietitian Deepalekha Bhattacharjee.
Choose your salt
It’s important to pick the right salt. Refined salt, which appears flawless white, is heavily processed to zap impurities. “Refined commercial salt contains harmful additives, including aluminium silicate, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Bhattacharjee. Natural or unrefined salt supplies your body with over 80 essential mineral elements as opposed to refined salt (like common table salt), which is stripped of all but two (sodium and chloride) elements.
So how can we distinguish unrefined salt from its refined avatar? “The refined versions often come bleached to carry the appealing white colour. They also carry anti-caking agents that make them free-flowing, and devoid of lumps. These salts are not healthy for consumption,” says Pawar. As consumers, though, we often fall for this beautiful, free flowing, lump-free complexion.
Adds Puranik, “Since these salts are highly processed and dried at over 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, bleached and chemically cleaned, they carry no minerals and essential macronutrients. Refined salt dominates the food market because it is cheaper to use, and creates larger profit margins for manufacturing companies.”
The solution lies in switching to unrefined, unprocessed salt for better health. Himalayan salt emerges as the best option. It occurs naturally in many versions: Black salt (kala namak) occurs as brownish-pink to dark violet, translucent crystals. When we grind black salt, it turns purple to pink in colour. “Black salt is rich in iron. It is harvested from the natural salt mines in northern India, and has a peculiar smell due to a high amount of sulphur. It carries slightly lower sodium content (than table salt) and is perfect for hypertensive patients. Ayurveda recommends black salt as a cooling spice that acts as a laxative, cures intestinal disorders and also improves eyesight,”says Pawar. “It comes complete with 84 trace minerals and nutrients like magnesium, copper, potassium, iron, zinc, and calcium.”
Or you could try rock salt (sendha namak), a large-grained, coarse salt derived from the deposits of dried lakes in Punjab. “It contains less sodium than table salt and contains almost 94 trace minerals and is extremely beneficial for patients with hypertension and cardiac ailments,” adds Pawar.
Make sure you read the label on packs even if you are buying sea salt. “Look for ‘natural unrefined sea salt’,” says Bhattacharjee “The sodium content of sea salt and table salt is almost the same. Sea salt is made by the evaporation of ocean water or water from saltwater lakes,” explains Pawar. “It contains trace minerals and elements, absent in table salt. Sea salt is also free from unhealthy bleaching and anti-caking agents.”
Consuming unprocessed, unrefined salt, in conjunction with water, helps stabilize irregular heartbeat and regulate blood pressure, expelling excess acidity from the cells. “There is better absorption of nutrients through your intestinal tract,” says Bhattacharjee.
If you suffer from asthma and cystic fibrosis, consumption of unprocessed, unrefined salt can clear the lungs of mucus and sticky phlegm, alleviate sinusitis and prevent muscle cramps. In the case of women, unrefined salt can help keep osteoporosis at bay.