In the March/April 2003 issue, I wrote that although sodium is an important nutrient essential to life, we tend to consume far too much in our diets and from salt-softened water.
The sodium we consume from food and water is only part of the problem, however. The other part is the highly refined nature of common table salt. Although our bodies are not designed to handle large amounts of sodium, healthy individuals usually can tolerate some excess sodium if it’s in a naturally occurring form our bodies can readily use or excrete. Commercial table salt used in our food and to soften water, however, is the furthest thing from this ideal. During the refining of table salt, natural sea salt or rock salt is stripped of more than 60 trace minerals and essential macronutrients.
The Salt-Refining Process
Commercial refined salt is not only stripped of all its minerals, besides sodium and chloride, but it also is heated at such high temperatures that the chemical structure of salt changes. In addition, it is chemically cleaned, bleached and treated with anti-caking agents, which prevent salt from mixing with water in salt containers. Unfortunately, the anti-caking agents perform the same function in the human body, so refined salt does not dissolve and combine with the water and fluids present in our systems. Instead, it builds up in the body and leaves deposits in organs and tissue, which can cause severe health problems.
Two of the most common anti-caking agents used in the mass production of salt are sodium aluminosilicate and aluminum-calcium silicate. These are both sources of aluminum, a toxic metal that has been suggested by some to be related to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Also, these agents leave a bitter taste in salt, so manufacturers usually add sugar (in the form of dextrose) to hide the taste of the aluminum.
Finding the Hidden Sodium
Contrary to popular belief, getting salt out of your diet and controlling your intake isn’t as simple as passing up the salt shaker. In fact, if you’re the average American, throwing away your salt shaker will hardly make a dent in your sodium intake because salt added at the table is minimal compared to the salt that is hidden in the processed foods we eat every day.
Manufacturers add salt to foods so routinely that it’s difficult to escape it. From obviously salted snack foods like chips, pretzels and roasted nuts to basic staples like soups and breads, salt is in there. It’s even hidden in cereals such as corn flakes and desserts such as instant chocolate pudding.
Become a label reader. No matter where you buy your food, pay attention to what’s in it. Don’t forget that the overwhelming majority of the salt Americans consume is hidden in processed foods. This means you have to be skeptical about every food you’re thinking of buying. If you do nothing else to lower your sodium intake, read labels and don’t let the hidden sodium sneak past you.
Read the number of sodium milligrams listed on the label of the food you’re considering buying. Although sodium requirements differ for each individual, use this as a rule of thumb: Focus on buying low-sodium foods — foods that have 140 mg or less sodium per serving — and make these your staples.
Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., C.N.S., is the author of The Fat Flush Plan (McGraw Hill, 2002), The Fat Flush Cookbook (McGraw Hill, 2003), Eat Fat, Lose Weight (Keats, 1999) and Why Am I Always So Tired? (Harper San Francisco, 1999).