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The following blog post the first in a three-part series on the most common food additives - salt, sugar, and oil. Each of these three elements is present in almost everything we eat, albeit in different forms. In fact, salt, sugar, and fat(nearly always oil) form the basis of taste in a meal, regardless of its ethnic origin. There is conflicting health information on each: table salt is bad, Himalayan salt is good; All sugar is toxic; olive oil is healthy but other oils are not. Each of these will be deconstructed individually along with the health implications of consuming each additive in the quantities most commonly found in our food today.
At this point it is important to note that this is not fear mongering or sensationalism: each additive will be discussed using credible scientific research which will be linked accordingly. At no point should you, the reader, feel guilty about what you are eating. That is not the purpose of these posts or this website. This information will simply raise your awareness of food in general and how your health is affected by it. This, in turn, will encourage you to make small but sustainable healthier choices, adjusting what you eat daily to look and feel healthier (should this be your goal).
What is Salt?
Salt is comprised of two chemical elements, Sodium Chloride (NaCl), which contains 40% sodium and 60% chloride. Sodium is an essential nutrient for humans. It plays a vital role in bodily processes including fluid balance, muscle contraction, and nervous system function
. Sodium / salt will be used interchangeably in this article, as salt is the source of 90% of sodium intake for humans.
Humans have been adding salt to food ever since its discovered use as a food preservative. It was important to both the economy and basic survival of multiple civilizations. It was a precious resource that was heavily used in trading and as currency. The word salary (the monthly payment to workers in exchange for their efforts) is derived from the Latin word "salarium" which was a Roman soldier's allowance to buy salt.
In modern times food preservation methods such as freezing and refrigeration are available which make salt less relevant as a preservation technique. In fact we consume salt in quantities far beyond the levels of our ancestors, which is linked to and causing various major health issues today. The role of salt in taste and the dangers of over-consumption are discussed below, before concluding
As previously mentioned, salt is a vital nutrient which regulates fluid balance in the body. Problems arise when too much salt is consumed, which leads to excess water retention
. This, in turn, raises blood pressure, which is the bodies response in attempting to push excess fluid and salt out of your system
. The medical response is to take blood pressure lowering medication; suppressing the bodies natural response to achieve balance does nothing to address the underlying cause of high blood pressure. The problem lies in the amount of sodium we consume. In Ireland, the average adult takes in 10g of salt a day. For 90% of human history, our ancestors most likely got sodium from one source, plants, and consumed 1g of salt a day.
As this is a low amount, our bodies are finely tuned over millennia to conserve salt to maximize its use. Consuming 10 times the amount of any nutrient which your body requires will cause problems. The body can filter and eliminate the excess of almost anything, but the constant overload over days, weeks, years and decades is when problems occur.
Salt is used as a flavour enhancer in food. Tastebuds & the brains reward system evolved at a time when salt was scarce and thus are finely tuned to deliver a neurochemical reward every time it is consumed, to ensure your continued consumption, and therefore survival. Likely discovered by accident (as this science would not have been available in the past) the addition to salt in food in any situation would lead to an increase in enjoyment, compliments, sales or whatever the desired outcome may have been. Thus average consumption is constantly rising. Coupled with the desensitization of tastebuds over time
(the more of a stimulus is consumed, the stronger habituation of tastebuds, and the more of the stimulus required to gain a positive response) salt consumption has reached dangerous levels biologically, but are considered the norm socially.
As previously mentioned, excess salt consumption leads to high blood pressure, which brings with it its own array of health issues. Salt and high blood pressure are also heavily linked to both stoke and heart disease. It is estimated that cutting salt intake by 1/2 teaspoon per day (avoiding salty foods and adding excess salt) could prevent 22% of stroke deaths and 16% of fatal heart attacks
. Dr Walter Kempner proved this by treating high blood pressure patients with a plant-based diet in the 1940's (medication was not available at this time) and was able to successfully halt and treat disease in 70% of patients treated using diet alone.
Sodium is an essential nutrient in our diet, with table salt the most common source for nearly all humans. Our modern salt consumption is 10 times that of our ancestors, and therefore 10 times the amount at which our bodies naturally evolved to function on. Constant excessive sodium consumption plays a role in many areas of human health, including weight and disease. This coupled with the role of salt as a modern-day flavour enhancer has led to excess, even dangerous sodium consumption levels considered normal in today's society. Reducing your salt intake daily, over a sustained period of time, will result in weight loss, reduced risk of disease and increased overall health.