The sodium in salt is an essential nutrient that regulates blood pressure as well as muscle and nerve function. But it should be consumed only in moderation. ‘High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of stroke, and high sodium consumption is one of the leading causes of high blood pressure,’ says Kevin Willis, director of partnerships for the Canadian Stroke Network. Studies also show links between high-salt diets and obesity, stomach cancer, asthma and kidney stones. As well, researchers have found that high-salt diets are associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis, because sodium increases calcium excretion.
Unfortunately, Canadians on average get much more sodium than they need’more than 3,100 milligrams (mg) each day. According to Health Canada, the adequate daily intake is 1,500 mg and the tolerable upper limit for adults is 2,300 mg. (One teaspoon [5 mL] of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium.) ‘Women between the ages of nine and 50 are consuming twice the recommended daily amount,’ Willis points out.
Iodine, which is added to table salt and some sea salts in Canada, enables the thyroid gland to manufacture thyroxine (a hormone that regulates metabolism), and promotes growth and development in fetuses and children. It also reduces the chance of developing thyroid gland problems such as goitre. But, points out Dr. Norm Campbell, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, and the Canadian Chair in hypertension prevention and control, goitre tends not to be a problem in this country, because our soils contain enough iodine, which is transferred to the fruit and vegetables we grow.
Having said all that, it’s a fact that salt is a basic taste we’re hard-wired to detect’our tongue’s taste receptor cells can tune into salt just four months after we’re born. So it makes sense that it’s tough to shake the habit. Added to that, for most people the majority of their sodium intake comes from processed foods. Carol Dombrow, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, says cooking from scratch will help lower your salt intake (so long as you use it sparingly!), because it puts you in control of how much you add to your meal.
Is there a way to add only a little, but still be satisfied? Maybe: Food stores across North America are now stocking many varieties of specialty salts, in colours and textures that go way beyond the basics. Forget about the refined stuff in those little glass shakers; these exotic grains and flakes, often packaged in shiny tins and elegant glass bottles, can add crunch and texture to a dish. And the granules’ different sizes and shapes mean they dissolve at different rates on the tongue, so they can add bursts of flavour, or bring out a long, lingering one. At gourmet restaurants, you might find pink chunks of Himalayan salt sprinkled over pats of butter, or a dusting of grey fleur de sel clinging to bibb lettuce leaves.
But they can be pricey. Some are smoked over open fires, or hand-harvested from salt-evaporation ponds (pools designed to remove salt from sea water). Others may contain minerals when harvested, or are mixed with local materials such as clay or even algae.
Of course, specialty salts carry the same health consequences as regular table salt. So proceed with caution.
Try these speciality salts
These ‘finishing salts’ punch up dishes with flavours of herbs, spices, teas and smoke, among others. Also, try black olive Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc on a mozzarella and tomato salad or, on fish, Terre Exotique’s Salish salt, which is smoked over a red alder fire.
This is perfect for rubs, marinades and sprinkling over salads. Kosher salt’s large coarse or flaky crystals are great for pinching. They will dissolve well in liquids but not in batters.
Add drama to meals with a Hawaiian red Alaea sea salt, which takes its burnt-umber colour from the finely ground clay it’s mixed with (other Hawaiian salts may contain lava or coral), or try a grey-purple ‘black salt’ from India. Coloured salts add an earthy flavour, and their hues make them popular with chefs. Sprinkle on grilled fish or baked potatoes.
Fleur de sel
This is a French finishing salt. Sprinkle it on brownies or soups. Popular varieties are from Guérande in Brittany and Camargue in the southeastern region. Or try flor de sal, a Portuguese version from the Algarve region.