What is Sodium?
A chemical element, but more importantly, sodium is an essential nutrient. That means humans need it to survive.
The World Health Organization said it best when they explained that it is “necessary for maintenance of plasma volume, acid-base balance, transmission of nerve impulses and normal cell function” (WHO).
That means your blood and brain cells do not work properly unless there is sodium in your system.
Is There A Difference between “Salt” and “Sodium”?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Hell yes.
While sodium is an element by itself, salt is a combination of two minerals, sodium and chloride (or Na + CI, by their Chemistry names).
Table salt, allegedly the poster-child example of sodium, is made up of around 40% sodium and 60% chloride.
Should I Be Eating No Sodium At All?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but no.
You have probably heard that the less salt you eat, the healthier you are. But that is fake news.
The truth is your body needs those precious salty bits to survive another day.
The key is balance. You should neither eat too much, nor too little of it. In fact, studies have shown that too little sodium may be harmful.
A deficiency in sodium can lead to higher cholesterol and even insulin resistance. That runs alongside an increased mortality rate due to low sodium consumption in people with certain types of diabetes, amongst other possible complications.
If you are interested, we expand further on this topic in the Health Risks of Low Sodium Consumption below.
So, What Are the Recommended Sodium Amounts Per Day, Then?
Expert opinions vary, but the maximum amount of salt recommended is an average of 5 grams per day. This should provide the necessary amount of sodium you need to avoid health risks.
The UK government, for instance, recommends no more than 6 grams of salt a day (that is about a teaspoon), which equals around 2.4 g of sodium a day for adults. They suggest even less for children.
However, the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that the average adult actually eats 8 to 12 grams of salt every day (that is about 2 teaspoons).
To put things into perspective, bear in mind that a teaspoon of salt (teaspoon, not tablespoon) contains about 2.3 g of sodium. In that sense, the commonly recommended daily intake of sodium ranges between 3 and 7 grams, which is the optimal amount in order to avoid disease.
Here is a visual table from The British Heart Foundation to help:
We are not saying that you need to pour salt on your food and eat it without limits. On the contrary, what is recommended is to have neither too much, nor too little of it.
Health Risks of Low Sodium Consumption
As the poem goes, beware low sodium levels, my child. If you eat too little salt, you are basically playing yourself like an accordion.
At least two separate studies demonstrated in 2011 that too little salt can increase the likelihood of stroke, heart attack, and death.
The main factor to consider here is that the body cannot produce salt on its own. It actually has to come from somewhere else.
What your body does do, and very well, is flush out excess salt in case it receives too much of it, but not without consequences.
Health Risks of High Sodium Consumption
Amazingly, the body actually flushes out a lot of the salt it gets that it does not need. There is very little extra salt that is actually absorbed in your body if you unknowingly shove down too many crisps one afternoon.
Just a few extra cups of coffee can make you lose a lot of water and salt! As a mineral, salt can be drained out of the body quite easily.
However, if you keep up with excessive consumption, problems might arise. Excess consumption of sodium can contribute to increased blood pressure and a risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and a coronary heart attack.
Benefits of Sodium Reduction
You should not cut salt completely out of your diet, but reducing sodium intake is substantially beneficial, especially with the type of foods we eat daily.
An elevated blood pressure is directly related to the high consumption of sodium (Appel, et al., 2011). It is important to highlight that elevated blood pressure is a leading, yet preventable, cause of mortality and morbidity in the United States and throughout the world.
We clearly need to reduce salt consumption worldwide, but it is usually essential for enhanced (and even good taste), not to mention necessary for our health.
Without salt, many foods seem tasteless and bland. So, what can we do?
Types of Salts
First off, please note that not all salts are created equal.
Ordinary table salt (better known as processed salt) and natural salt (rock salt or sea salt) are two different things.
- Table salt is mined from salt deposits. It is then processed to give it a fine texture.
- Sea salt is obtained directly through the evaporation of seawater, which sounds cooler than it actually is.
- Himalayan salt is rock salt commonly taken from the Punjab region of Pakistan, which is actually as cool as it sounds.
The natural options tend to be clear of additives and bleach. They also tend to preserve their original enzymes and minerals (which are removed from processed salt).
On Table VS Rock Salt
However, premium salt is not a truly good substitute for regular salt.
“Posh salts” (such as pink and rock salt) are still almost 100% the same thing as table salt. Some might have more good minerals, but their sodium levels are pretty much identical, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So using a different type of salt to reduce sodium intake is pretty much bogus. What you need is to change what you use to season your food.
Changing Your Source of Sodium – Tare and Kelp as Salt Replacement
Cutting out salt without eating tasteless food is a huge possibility. In fact, we consider ourselves quite savvy at it, thank you very much.
Tare and Kelp – Cutting Down on Salt
Kelp is a good and natural alternative to salt as it contains only 186 milligrams of sodium per cup.
If you do the math, that means that a 2-tablespoon serving of raw kelp contains just 23 milligrams of sodium, which should help you have a better grip of your sodium intake altogether.
The good salty taste in kelp comes from other minerals, not sodium. Large servings of kelp should be consumed only occasionally.
Like kelp, tare is also a natural alternative to salt as the good and salty taste in tare also comes from other minerals.
Seaweed Salt – Another Option to Salt
Another option in the salt world is seaweed salt. Seaweed salt gives a good salty flavor to food, yet it does so with much less sodium consumption than regular table salt would.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV have actually concluded that algae could be used as a salt substitute, which would also help reduce sodium content.
And numbers confirm it!
- 1g of table salt = 0.4g of sodium
- 1g of seaweed salt = between 0.022g to 0.047g sodium, depending on the seaweed species.
In other words, seaweed contains more than 8 times less sodium than salt.
And it also has other good stuff in it! Seaweed is a source of potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and iodine (Hotchkiss, 2010), all bits of things your doctor tells you constantly to eat.
If you typically flavor food with stock cubes, cheese, condiments or soy sauce, seaweed can help you, too. You can use seaweed flakes to dry or roast meats and vegetables, which will remove moisture and actually strengthen your flavors.
We get it, though: swapping salt for seaweed requires a psychological, practical and physical effort. But it is worth it.
Use it to break bad habits. Simply taste your food before you reach for the seasoning. If you feel your desired taste has not been reached, add flavor into the food, not saltiness.
Indulge in spicing food up with seaweed salt, all the while reducing your overall sodium consumption.
To preserve its natural salt from the ocean, seaweed is carefully selected from clean and pure waters before it is safely processed.
Keep Your Eyes Open for Sodium
Remember, eating less salt is not just about cooking without it, regardless of the change that makes. It is also not just about using less salt to season your meals once you have sat down at the table.
Shockingly, 75% of the salt we eat comes from your traditional store favorites, such as cereals, bread, and especially ready-to-go meals. A little bit of a salty product might not amount too high in your salt intake, but, over time and cumulatively, salts start adding up very quickly. Stay on the lookout!
Also, why not give seaweed a chance? You will not be disappointed.
Appel, L. J., Frohlich, E. D., Hall, J. E., Pearson, T. A., Sacco, R. L., Seals, D. R., … & Van Horn, L. V. (2011). The importance of population-wide sodium reduction as a means to prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke: a call to action from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 123(10), 1138-1143.