What exactly is table salt or sodium chloride? Find out how it is made, why it is bad for your health and I will also share with you some extremely healthy alternative salts that even taste better!
What is Table Salt?
Table salt is a mineral composed almost entirely of sodium chloride (NaCl), which is 39% sodium and 61% chlorine. It is the world’s most popular food condiment.
The salt is sourced from either the evaporation of sea water, mined from rocks in the earth and ever more commonly (or worryingly) today – chemically engineered in factories!
Both sea salts and mined salts then go through a lengthy refinement process to produce the common table salt that we use in our cooking.
How is Table Salt Made?
Table salt undergoes one of a number of similar refinement process before reaching our table. The refinement process looks something like this:
- Rock salt is cut from the ground before being crushed and cleaned via various methods including magnetism and filtering. It is then dissolved in water to form brine for further processing below. The sea salt is already in brine form to start with so we are ready for step 2.
- The brine is heated to remove the water and the top crust of salt skimmed off. Most minerals and trace elements including calcium, iodine, magnesium, potassium and iron are removed at this stage.
- The salt is often washed again in water, before being blasted at very high temperatures (365°F or 185°C) to burn off the water. This removes any remaining trace elements leaving a salt that is about 99.8% sodium chloride.
- The salt is bleached with whiteners so it looks presentable to us.
- Anti-caking agents and stabilizers are added to stop the salt crystals clumping together.
Is the refinement process really necessary?
Salt can be produced naturally when sea water evaporates in the sun – so why is refinement necessary?
The answer is money: producing refined salt is quicker, cheaper and can be done on an industrial scale. So whilst people are happy to buy the cheapest salt on the shelves, companies will produce it.
But the Body Needs Sodium, so Why is Refined Table Salt Bad?
The human body needs sodium to function: it regulates blood pressure and helps the muscles and nerves to function. In fact the 5 main minerals in the human body are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and SODIUM. So why is refined table salt bad for us?
Table salt gets bad press for two reasons. Firstly the modern diet contains way too much refined salt. On average, adults in the UK eat about 8.1g of salt (3.2g sodium) a day – way above the recommended maximum 6g of salt (2.4g sodium) a day. The second problem with processed table salt is due to the refinement process:
- Processed salt is almost 100% sodium chloride – the other 80 beneficial minerals and trace elements such as iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iodine have been removed.
- Refined salt often contains whiteners, anti-caking agents and stabilizers which are toxic to the body.
- Refined salt is acid-forming, creating the ideal environment for disease to thrive.
The Health Side-Effects of Refined Table Salt
Consider that every grain of salt can carry 20 times its weight in water. Our body needs only 0.2g of sodium a day to function. Any more salt than that can cause health problems, shortening your life span.
Here are some of the health problems caused by excessive sodium consumption:
- High blood pressure: Excess, unused sodium gets inside the blood vessels, thickening and narrowing them, causing the rise in blood pressure. Hypertension can be painless: most people lead most of their lives normally, oblivious to the increasing force with which the blood is pressing against blood vessel walls. If a blocked artery ruptures this can cause a stroke or heart attack.
- Atherosclerosis: With high blood pressure, atherosclerosis usually follows closely behind. Fat deposits accumulate in the artery walls with careless eating, forming plaques that eventually block the flow of blood.
- Fluid retention: High salt concentration in the blood draws water from the surrounding cells to help dilute the blood. This results in fluid retention, causing uncomfortable swelling in the feet, hands or abdomen.
- Osteoporosis: To process and remove excess sodium, the kidneys use calcium. Habitual loss of calcium without sufficient calcium intake leads to osteoporosis.
- Kidney stones: The kidneys are responsible for regulating salt and water levels in our body. When there is excessive sodium, the increased calcium output raises the risk of kidney stones.
- Stomach cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer and has been linked to high salt intake. Salt strips the lining of the stomach, increasing the chance of infection with Helicobacter Pylori, a known cancer trigger.
Other health problems linked with excessive consumption of salt or sodium:
- Cancer of the esophagus
- Aggravates asthma
- Chronic gastritis
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Liver cirrhosis
- Muscle twitching
- Brain damage
- Coma and sometimes even death
How Much Salt Should We Eat?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 1.6g of sodium (4g salt) per day for adults.
The body actually needs a minimum of 0.2g of sodium, and we should never exceed 2.4g sodium a day.
We get all the sodium we need from a balanced diet and do not need to add it to our cooking. Unfortunately modern junk food is crammed with salt and even sugar to disguise the excessively salty flavor.
Now prepare yourself, because personally I find this shocking: if you eat just one portion of the following foods, you are way over your sodium limit for the day:
- Ina Wan Tan Noodles (16,800 mg sodium = 7 x allowable !!)
- Korean Noodle U-Dong flavor (9,330 mg sodium = 3.89 x allowable)
- Nasi lemak (4,020 mg sodium = 1.68 x allowable)
- Prawn noodles (2,720 mg sodium = 1.13 x allowable)
- Mamak mee goreng (3,190 mg sodium = 1.33 x allowable)
- KFC’s fried chicken (2,590 mg sodium = 1.08 x allowable)
- Cocoa powder (950 mg / 5 gm)
- Milo powder (500 mg / 10 gm)
- Cornflakes (1,170 mg / 30 gm)
- Scones (800 mg / 30 gm)
- Salted butter and margarine (840 mg / 10 gm)
- Boiled prawns (1,590 mg / 120 gm)
- Fried bacon (1,870 mg / 40 gm)
- Canned ham (1,250 mg / 90 gm)
- Canned luncheon meat (1,050 mg / 90 gm)
- Salami (1,080 mg / 90 gm)
- Fried beef sausages (818 mg / 90 gm)
- Camembert cheese (1,410 mg / 25 gm)
- Cheese spread (1,170 mg / 10 gm)
- Danish blue cheese (1,420 mg / 25 gm)
- Processed cheese (1,360 mg / 25 gm)
- Vegemite (3,100 mg / 5 gm)
Types of Sodium Additives
Table salt is commonly used as a seasoning, pickling agent or preservative in food. However, food manufacturers also add other forms of sodium into food that is sold to the uninformed public.
There are more than forty known sodium additives in commercially manufactured foods – here are the most common:
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer in many packaged and canned foods such as soups, instant noodles, stock cubes, condiments, sauces, snacks, pickles and canned meat.
- Sodium Saccharin is an artificial sweetener used in diet sodas, dietetic food and as a sugar substitute.
- Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate is a sequestrant combined with trace metals in food to render them inactive. It is also used in leavening mixtures for self-rising in cakes, doughnuts, waffles, muffins, cupcakes; and found in sausages and hotdogs.
- Sodium Alginate or Sodium Carboxymethyl Cellulose is used as a stabilizer, thickener and texturizer. It is used to stabilize, retain or intensify the color of foods and prevents sugar from crystallizing. It is also used to increase viscosity and modify food texture. It is commonly used in beer, ice-cream, chocolate-flavored drinks, cheese spreads, frozen custard, desserts, diet foods and even baby foods (do we know what are we feeding to our little ones?)
- Sodium Benzoate is a flavoring and anti-microbial preservative. It has no taste of its own, but enhances the natural flavor of foods. It is often used when few other natural ingredients are present, as in margarine, soft drinks, milk, pickles, fruit jelly and jam.
- Sodium Propionate is a preservative used to extend the shelf-life of foods by preventing the growth of micro-organisms. It is present in bread, pastries, pies and cakes.
Healthy Alternatives to Table Salt
Any naturally-extracted, unrefined sea salts or rock salts are healthy alternatives to refined salt. Not only are they packed with up to 84 different minerals many essential for health, they are 100% natural, contain no additives and have an alkalizing effect in the body, so help fight illness and disease.
Here is a comprehensive list of healthy alternative salts.
One last piece of advice: always read the label!
Salt packaging can be deliberately misleading, so always read the label. Sea salt always originates in the sea, but may have been through the catastrophic refinement process described above to remove the beneficial minerals your body craves. Look for words on the label like “whole”, “hand-collected”, “organic”, “slow-drying” and avoid anything that says “refined” or “chemical”.