Health professionals are constantly telling us to eat less salt, and yet there are always new varieties in the supermarket! Dietitian Caitlin Reid and nutritionist Rose Carr explain.
Where does salt come from?
Salt, or sodium chloride, has been used for centuries to enhance the taste of food. It has also played an important role as a food preservative thanks to its ability to draw water out of foods, ensuring harmful microbes did not survive. But these days we have other ways to preserve foods, and we often hear the call to reduce our salt intake for the good of our health.
Salt is mainly found in sea water, but can also be found in underground deposits. It can be extracted in three ways: solar, artesian or mined. The hard ‘rock’ salt that is collected in these ways is then crushed so it becomes easier to pour from our salt shakers.
Types of salt
Table salt was once our only choice. It’s finely granulated and, because salt is so attractive to moisture, it usually contains an anti-caking agent so it flows easily even in humid conditions. Both table and rock salts are available in bulk bags for filling your own shaker or grinder, while some companies sell coarse salt in a convenient grinder, which you can throw away once it runs out. Some varieties of sea and table salt can also be purchased as iodised.
Table/cooking salt is a refined salt that goes through a process to remove traces of other naturally occurring minerals, until it is pure sodium chloride. Most table salt is available as either plain or iodised.
Sea salt is unrefined salt derived directly from a living ocean or sea. It is harvested through channelling ocean water and allowing the sun and wind to evaporate it. Sea salt contains traces of other minerals including iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc and iodine.
Rock salt is mined from deposits in the earth and typically contains about 95–99 per cent sodium chloride.
Lake salt is skimmed from the surface of the lake, filtered and kiln dried. Nothing is added to, or removed from lake salt, so it contains several trace elements such as calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. It tastes milder than sea salt.
Iodised salt is table salt with added iodine – which is important in regions that lack natural iodine in their soil.
Kosher salt also known as ‘coarse salt’, it’s an additive-free coarse-grained salt.
Lite salt contains half the sodium of regular table salt, with the other half being made uip of potassium chloride. and Potassium helps blunt the effect of salt on blood pressure, but intakes in Australia are lower than recommended. At the table, it looks and tastes just like salt, as long as you use it sparingly.
Chicken sea salt contains 96 per cent sea salt plus dehydrated vegetable flavouring, vegetable shortening, flavour enhancer, spice extracts and herb extract, as well as milk products.
Onion and celery salts contain dehydrated onion or celery and table salt. Onion and celery salts contain at least 30 per cent less salt than traditional salt varieties.
A huge range of herbs and spices can be used as flavouring alternatives.
Which type should you buy?
Healthy Food Guide is not encouraging you to add more salt to your food: on the contrary, if you habitually add salt, we’d like you to stop and think about cutting back. If you have to use salt, choose an iodised variety whenever possible.
The skinny on salt
Is salt REALLY unhealthy?
Most of us consume too much salt for the good of our health – almost nine times the daily recommended intake. Studies have shown that a massive 75 per cent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods. It’s the sodium in salt that has such a significant impact and because of this, processed foods must state on the nutrition information panel how much sodium they contain.
The National Health and Medical Research Council suggests the upper level for safe consumption of sodium is 2300mg per day for adults, the amount in just one teaspoon of salt. But to reduce the risk of chronic disease they suggest no more than 1600mg sodium each day. Our average consumption is estimated to be around 3600mg each day, so it’s way too high.
Why is iodine added to salt?
Iodine has been added to salt in Australia since the 1920s and today many of us are blissfully unaware we ever suffered from disorders of iodine deficiency. As well as goitre, iodine deficiency is associated with a wide range of health problems.
However, the last Australian Total Diet Survey found 43 per cent of Australians aren’t getting enough iodine and studies are showing a re-emergence of mild to moderate iodine deficiency. Food Standards Australia New Zealand is considering the fortification of some staple foods, and from October 9, Australian bakers will need to replace the salt they currently use in breadmaking with iodised salt. Other foods containing useful amounts of iodine include fish, shellfish, seafood, eggs and to a lesser degree dairy products.
Should I salt during cooking?
A tiny amount of salt can actually bring out the sweetness of some foods, e.g. tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple. A pinch of salt is often used in baking for the same purpose.
If you have an old recipe book, chances are it will tell you to add more salt than you’re accustomed to. Cut it back. Our tastes have changed as we’ve reduced our salt consumption.
Most cooks will tell you to taste your food before adding any seasoning; it may not need it!