Feature

Brine power: salts ain't salts

Green Lifestyle

How much salt should we have each day? And what’s so good about the boutique varieties that have become popular of late?

Salts

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You may not have given it much thought lately, but salt (or sodium chloride) is essential to human life. It controls muscle and nerve function, and is vital to maintaining fluid balance within the human body. As a precious commodity, salt has played a significant part in the history of our world through the ages. Thanks to its natural ability to preserve food and treat wounds, salt was once a high-value resource associated with wealth and prestige, and because of this it has influenced everything from the building of civilisations to the outcome of wars. While we may not value salt as highly as the Roman Empire did, it’s still a basic necessity for human life.

Nowadays, salt may be just another condiment that sits on the kitchen table, however the humble container of table salt is being sidelined by a new wave of gourmet salts, with varieties such as Himalayan rock salt and sea salt flakes gaining currency among foodies and health fanatics. While cooks might prefer the texture and flavour of the more expensive, gourmet salts, many are using these bespoke salts for health reasons. But do gourmet salts offer any health benefits that table salt doesn’t? Where do these bespoke salts come from? And do we need to add salt to our food at all?

Intake

Salt is important for human function but many people are unaware how much we need to consume daily. Malcolm Riley PhD, Nutritional Epidemiologist with the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) says, “For sodium, the adequate intake for adults is stated to be 460-920 mg/day. One gram of salt contains 390mg of sodium, so the adequate intake is about 1.2 to 2.4 grams [0.24 to 0.48 teaspoons] a day.” But most of us are consuming much more salt than this, and there are health implications for some. Riley notes, “The most significant condition that excess salt is associated with is hypertension (or high blood pressure), which is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.People with hypertension are advised to reduce their intake.”

Adding salt to food at the dinner table isn’t the sole culprit for excessive salt intake. The real issue is the amount contained in processed foods. Everything from tomato sauce to canned baked beans are major contributors to the average daily intake.

To reduce salt intake it’s advisable to read food labels and choose low-sodium varieties of foods, or prepare your own food. Adding spices and herbs to meals is a good way to make food more flavoursome without adding salt. To adjust to eating less salt takes about three weeks, during which time low-salt foods may seem bland. 

Bespoke salts

It’s easy to see the attraction of using ‘natural’ salt in comparison to processed, refined table salt, which often has added fillers (even sugar) and is sometimes bleached. Check the labels of popular brands of table salt and you’ll see anti-caking agent 554, or Sodium aluminosilicate, with contains aluminium and silicon.

Riley isn’t convinced about the health properties of so-called gourmet salts. “To my knowledge, there have been no clinical trials to show a health advantage of boutique salt brands,” he says. “My understanding is the unique mixture of elements in the ‘natural’ sources of salt is the basis for these claims. There is some evidence elements other than sodium have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, however I am sceptical the impact would be sufficient to result in a measurable health benefit if substituting a boutique salt for ordinary table salt.”

Sydney nutritionist Zoe Bingley-Pullin contends that less processed salts (such as Celtic sea salt) are preferable to refined salts as they are closer to the natural state and offer higher mineral content. “It’s essentially a case of whole foods versus processed foods. It’s preferable to eat foods in their raw, natural state. The refining process that table salt goes through removes the beneficial trace elements,” she says.

Some of the naturally occurring trace elements found in various salts are magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron. Check the pack for information about how much they contain.

The best salt for the job

Certain salts do certain kitchen jobs kitchen better than others. For instance, pickling salt has no anti-caking ingredients or additives, such as iodine, which can cloud the pickling juice or turn the pickles brown. Kosher salt is so named as it has large granules that draw blood from meat in keeping with kosher rules – but many chefs simply like the large granules as they’re easy to sprinkle and give a good hit of salt in a bite.

The iodine factor

Many people believe adding any salt to their food increases their iodine intake, but this is only the case if they’re consuming an iodised variety (some natural salts may have a tiny amount). Iodine helps to regulate hormone development and a lack of it in the diet can lead to thyroid disorders and developmental problems in children. “Most salt used in food manufacturing and much table salt is not iodised in Australia,” Riley notes. The exception to this is salt used in commercial bread making, which is required by law to be iodised.

The ethics of salt mining

Sea salt flakes or crystals are extracted from seawater and usually contain natural traces of iodine. They are typically not refined or interfered with much in the packaging process – hence the allure of using sea salt instead of heavily processed table salt. Other salts, such as Himalayan rock salt, are mined from the earth, most from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan, one of the oldest and largest in the world. Aside from a strong flavour, one brand of Himalayan black salt was said to contain 74 minerals.

Buying salt that is mined and imported from places like Pakistan or Peru is a matter of personal choice. However, those interested in reducing their food miles may prefer local options, such as Murray River salt which comes from underground acquifers in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin region.

The taste test:

In a finger-tip taste test of pink Murray River Gourmet Salt Flakes, Horizon Crystal Salt Flakes and Maldon smoked sea salt against regular table salt, the gourmet varieties had what could be described as a smoother flavour. After the pink and sea salts, the table salt tasted almost a bitter. I’m not sure that the average person would tell the difference between these by tasting a cooked dish – I certainly couldn’t – but the large-flaked salts are definitely good on such things as oven-baked potato wedges, where they add a pleasant, smooth, salty crunch.
– Lesley Lopes