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Is Pink Himalayan Salt Better Than Regular Salt?

We may ask ourselves are these large pink salt crystals mined from the Himalayas better for me than a tub of finely ground table salt? Whether from the home counties, pink or finely ground white the salt we sprinkle on our chips, add to our cooking water or food is the chemical compound sodium chloride. Both sodium and chloride are essential nutrients.

We tend to like the taste of salt, which is fortunate because we need some as part of a healthy balanced diet. We get chloride from various foods, but we mostly consume sodium in the form of salt. We need both elements for critical body functions such as the firing of nerves and muscles, and maintaining fluid balance. If our sodium levels get too low, we might suffer cramps, nausea, vomiting or dizziness, and, in extreme cases, if the deficiency goes untreated - shock, coma and even death.

Consuming too much sodium also causes problems mainly as it can lead to excessive fluid in our blood, which raises blood pressure. Too much salt causes the body to retain water. This increase in fluid in the body increases blood pressure which puts a strain on blood vessels, the heart and kidneys. As a result, people with high blood pressure have an increased risk of kidney and cardiovascular disease.

Some of us may remember the Sid the Slug campaign of 2004. This public health campaign is deemed to be one of the DOH’s most successful health campaigns, helping the public understand the risks of excessive salt consumption. Adults typically need less than 2g each day for our essential needs and in the UK we recommend a daily maximum of 6g - about a teaspoon. Yet in the UK, though it has significantly lowered since 2004, the average daily consumption is over 8g. This overconsumption of the simple mineral contributes to thousands of strokes, heart attacks and deaths every year.

About a quarter of our salt intake comes from what we add when cooking or when we season our food at the table. We do this mostly because salt makes everything taste better, enhancing flavour and blocking bitter tastes. Even though it makes up only a fraction of the total salt we eat, reducing the amount we sprinkle on our food can still result in significant health benefits.

A recent study carried out by Dr Yoon Jung Park looked at the effect of salt consumption and the risk of some types of heart disease. The research used data from the UK Biobank, which involves more than 500,000 people aged between 40 and 70 across the UK from 2006 to 2010. Each was asked how regularly they salted meals, from “never/rarely”, “sometimes”, “usually” or “always” do so. Researchers then tracked them over 11 years to see how this affected them.

Compared with those who "always" salted their foods, those who "never" did were 18% less likely to suffer Atrial Fibrillation. People who "sometimes" added it to meals were 15% less likely. The study suggests even those who switch their diet from “always” adding salt to “usually” adding it could see a large difference in their risk. Those in the "usual" group were 12% less likely to develop AF compared with those who “always” do so.

Sensitivity to salt varies significantly between people. This is partly due to genetics, but acclimatisation also plays a role, depending on our regular eating habits. The good news is that, if we reduce the amount of salt we add to our meals gradually over the course of a few weeks, our taste buds can slowly adapt to that change, making it fairly easy to adjust to a diet with less salt.

Other ways of reducing salt consumption include switching to a finer grind (using smaller salt granules) and only adding salt to the outside of food (when it has been served, rather than when it's being prepared). Doing the latter allows it to meet the taste buds more quickly, producing a stronger salt 'burst' despite the smaller amounts involved. Adding herbs to food is also a good way to enhance its flavour without adding large quantities of salt.

Though where does all the extra salt we consume come from? It can be hidden in processed and packaged foods. Salt is often used as a preservative, dramatically extending the shelf life. Food preservation using salt, more commonly known as “curing”, works by reducing the amount of “free water” – needed by micro-organisms to survive – in the food. The curing salt used to preserve smoked salmon and ham, for example, also slows down the oxidation process and prevents meat or fish from turning rancid as quickly as it otherwise would.

Salty-tasting foods, such as crisps, processed meats and other savoury items, aren't the only things that contribute to excess salt intake. Some shelf-stable sweet products (think cakes, cookies and muffins) can also incorporate large amounts of salt. Ready meals can also be high in salt even if they look like balanced meals. Many low-fat and low-sugar versions of products include more salt to boost their flavour.

A "green light" for salt on traffic light labelling on the front of most composed food packaging can help us select foods lower in salt.

Though rare, some manufacturers may still quote sodium content on their nutritional information panels on the back of food and drink. When thinking about salt intakes, it’s important to know that each 1g of sodium translates to 2.5g of salt, and to take this into account when looking at how much salt you have day-to-day.

In recent years, plain table salt has been joined on shop shelves by several other varieties: sea salt, pink salt and Himalayan salt, to name just a few. These products often claim to provide health benefits, due to the additional minerals they contain. Pink Himalayan salt contains several minerals not found in regular salt. However, these minerals are found in very small quantities and unlikely to provide any health benefits. Ultimately, all salt is still high in sodium and can cause the same health outcomes as table salt when overeaten. Because table salt is finely ground we may say it is actually healthier as we add less than its chunkier partners in crime.

The bottom line is that every reduction in our salt intake can help reduce the risks to our health. It's never too late to start cutting down if we think we are eating more than the recommended amount. So, next time we’re cooking or sitting down to eat, let's think twice before reaching for the salt shaker whether it’s blue, pink or white.

Happy eating,

Nina Thomas

BSc (Hons), MSc, ANutr

Registered Associate Nutritionist & Food Scientist

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