It's been around for millennia.
It's the topic of folksy adages: “Salt of the earth.” “Take everything with a grain of salt.”
Throughout history, it has been highly valued among traders and often used as currency.
Scientifically, it's sodium chloride, and it’s necessary for the survival of humans and animals.
Salt also is versatile, used to preserve and season food, melt ice, aid in water softening and essential in the chemical industry.
My father used to shake it on everything, including watermelon.
Table salt, which is what Dad used, is typically mined from underground rock masses and beds. It is processed to remove other minerals and may be fortified with iodine.
Sea salt, as its name suggests, comes from evaporated sea water in oceans and salt-water lakes. It is less processed and contains trace minerals that add flavor and color. Contrary to marketing, the nutritional value is the same for either.
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The human body requires a small amount of sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals. Sodium deficiency is rare; however, sodium blood levels may become too low (hyponatremia) in cases of excess vomiting, diarrhea and sweating. They may also become too low in older adults taking medications or with certain health conditions.
A diet high in sodium draws water into the bloodstream, which can increase the volume of blood and raise blood pressure. When blood pressure remains elevated over time, the heart must work harder to pump blood, increasing pressure in the arteries. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can raise the risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease and blindness.
The American Heart Association and Dietary Guidelines for Americans, established by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day, or about one teaspoon of table salt. For most adults, the ideal limit is 1,500 mg per day, or just over half a teaspoon. (There are some exceptions, such as elite athletes or heavy sweaters.) On average, Americans eat more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, so reaching 2,300 milligrams would be significant.
More than 70% of the sodium Americans eat comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods. Check out the sodium levels on the Nutrition Facts label of the packaged goods in your kitchen, being mindful of what constitutes a serving. Many times we consume more than one serving without being aware of it. Next time you do your grocery shopping, look for lower-sodium versions of your packaged favorites.
Foods that are low in sodium include fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry, meats and seafood.
When choosing packaged poultry or meat, check the label to make sure it has not been injected with a sodium solution. Swap packaged instant rice and macaroni dishes with whole-grain rice and pastas and add your own seasonings. Beware of condiments, soups, dressings, sauces, soy sauce and dips. Some high-sodium foods don’t taste salty, so read the labels.
Try to avoid products with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. Rinse sodium-containing canned foods. Eat more meals at home and use fresh or dried herbs, spices and the zest and juice from citrus to add flavor. When eating out, look online for nutritional information ahead of time to make smart choices. Ask your server for lower sodium recommendations and sauces and dressings on the side. Portions are often large enough to share or take half home for another meal, thereby reducing sodium and caloric intake.
There are a variety of salts that add a different flair to your dishes: Himalayan pink salt, smoked sea salt, Colima Sea salt, Kosher salt, Celtic Grey Sea salt and black Hawaiian salt among them. All contain varying amounts of sodium.
Our taste for salt is acquired. It is possible to retrain our taste buds to enjoy foods with less salt. Go for low-sodium packaged and be more conscious of your use of additional salt at the table. Savor the food. Slowly use less, and over time, you may be able to ditch the salt shaker.
Carol Slager is a licensed pharmacist, author, blogger and health coach in Northwest Indiana. Follow her monthly in Get Healthy and at inkwellcoaching.com. Opinions expressed are the writer's.