The Salt of the Earth

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For decades the medical establishment has been asserting that salt is the cause of America’s hypertension epidemic. In spite of contrary evidence, even from amongst its own ranks, the establishment is slow to revise its view and thus millions of Americans gladly reduce their salt intake to avoid its alleged dangers.

While there are recent peer-reviewed studies which challenge the establishment view, it should also be noted that refined salt found in the majority of salt shakers in America is not the same salt valued and used by human beings from the dawn of our existence. The most common table salt comes in two varieties, iodized salt (sodium chloride with added iodine) and non-iodized (sodium chloride). Neither of these resemble salt found in the "wild" or in salt produced using ancient methods. Table salt is refined using sea water, but any similarity to sea salt ends there.

“Because table salt comes from the same batch as vacuum refined industrial salt, it is treated with caustic soda or lime to remove all traces of magnesium salts.”

~ Jacques Delangre, Seasalt’s Hidden Powers

Iodine is usually added to salt as potassium iodate or potassium iodide. The purpose of its addition was to prevent goiter. Salt was chosen as the medium since everyone in America uses salt (much like vitamin D was added to milk as a convenient medium). The addition of iodine to salt was a government mandate (now in over 100 countries world wide) based on alarming rates of iodine deficiencies reported in the early part of the 20th century. Studies have shown that the potassium iodate added to synthetic salt is rapidly lost over time due to its relative instability. Iodine in its natural form is found in seaweed, sea salt, seafood, any vegetable grown in iodine-rich soil and many varieties of nuts grown in iodine rich soils. It may have been much healthier to add iodine to soil then it was to force Morton and other companies to fortify salt. On the other hand, the major salt manufacturers, in the attempt to make table salt ‘pretty’ were removing the beneficial elements in sea salt that make it so important a nutrient, including iodine. If you examine the practices of food processing companies in detail, you might just give up your potato chips, but salt refinement is in its own class.

“Most discussions of salt ignore the issue of salt processing. Few people realize that our salt — like our sugar, flour and vegetable oils — is highly refined; it is the product of a chemical and high-temperature industrial process that removes all the valuable magnesium salts as well as trace minerals naturally occurring in the sea.

“To replace the natural iodine salts that are removed during processing, potassium iodide is added in amounts that can be toxic. To stabilize the volatile iodide compound, processors add dextrose which turns the iodized salt a purplish color. A bleaching agent is then necessary to restore whiteness to the salt.”

Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions — pp. 48

It doesn’t seem a sensible practice, but there is profit to be had with the by-products of salt refinement. Common sense would dictate that removing all of the things that make salt work properly when ingested by humans to then put it back (sort of) is just plain silly. According to some researchers the iodine salts found in traditionally produced sea-salt (salt water exposed to the sun in clay vats) actually stay in your body longer then the additive versions. Accepted science with regard to the detrimental effects of salt may only be valid if we’re talking about this refined version.

Humans have for millennia treated salt as a valuable commodity. The word ‘salary’ is derived from the Latin ‘sal’ — salt. Roman soldiers were paid in salt. China at one time actually produced salt coins. That it was used as currency is not proof of salt’s dietary efficacy. On the other hand, its importance was in fact based on its fundamental life-saving quality. Wars have been fought over salt. The city in Germany, Salsburg was a major stop at one time along the historical salt trade routes. Timbuktu’s legend was made during the time that salt traded there as equal in value to gold. It cannot be stressed enough how important salt has been to the development of civilizations. It is as important as water for humans. You would literally die without salt; every cell in your body requires sodium to work properly.

Reductionist science tends to attempt the discrediting of conventional human wisdom, claiming it invalid for not conforming to scientific methods or claiming it is the product of superstition. This is pretty easy to do with reductionist methods. If you take any compound and strip everything down to its most basic elements, you can probably “prove” just about any theory. The reductionists, in spite of common sense and in spite of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary have declared salt is bad for you. Because they’re experts, we listen. But we forget that there is a difference between the product of some study and actual knowledge.

There are examples of populations which defy modern medicine’s proscriptions against salt and do not show elevated risks for heart disease or even its precursor condition, hypertension. For instance, in the Andes, inhabitants there commonly pour quantities of salt on their foods which would send witnessing medical professionals  — those who subscribe to the “salt is bad” theory — into coronary arrest. They harvest it from the mountain quarries and keep it handy in large bowls, grabbing a pinch or dipping food directly in the salt. My wife, who witnessed this while in Ecuador, said her companion tried to warn their hostess that salt was bad but the woman corrected her and said salt was, roughly translated (from Quechua, to Spanish then English), “the blood from the earth.” This woman certainly didn’t believe the admonition of the American girl because everyone in their village had been eating that way all their lives. While anecdotal, this example does offer evidence of an exception.

Nutritionists are discovering that minerals which exist in salt refined by ancient methods but not in refined table salt are very important to circulatory health. Sea salt refined traditionally can contain up to 16% of its content in trace minerals and salts other than sodium chloride.

Specifically, magnesium and potassium are important in the case of hypertension. The pharmaceutical companies’ answer to hypertension are blood pressure medications falling under the classification of calcium channel blockers (CCBs). What these types of medications do is prevent the uptake of calcium into your system so that the blood vessels expand. An unfortunate side effect of these drugs is reduction in magnesium absorption. Magnesium is an important mineral which aids your body in metabolizing calcium and potassium. Potassium deficiency is a prime suspect amongst nutritionists as the main cause of hypertension.

However, you can’t patent magnesium. Anne Briscoe and Charles Ragan discovered in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that calcium and magnesium are cooperative elements. When you increase magnesium intake, your absorption of both magnesium and calcium are greatly improved. When magnesium absorption is improved, so is potassium absorption. Thus, CCBs ultimately treat the symptom (constricted blood vessels) by reducing calcium absorption yet increase the body’s dependency on the drug since the underlying root cause of hypertension is not addressed and is in fact exacerbated.

In essence, the salt debate is a red herring in the matter of hypertension. The reductionists define salt as the majority element in a compound (in this case sodium chloride) and thus a study which focuses on this form of “salt” cannot even pretend to resolve the whys and wherefores of the real thing. A similar case in point is Vitamin C. Vitamin C is defined by the reductionists as ‘ascorbic acid’ when in reality Vitamin C is a compound comprised of at least 90 different elements, some of which are known to aid in the absorption of the majority ingredient and some of which are still being studied. This is fairly typical in the war on conventional wisdom. Weston Price debunked the “fat is bad” theory even before it began — another myth that has probably killed more than it has saved; yet many in the medical community continue to peddle the “don’t eat fat” theory just like they peddle the “don’t eat salt” theory. Price is a must read for anyone with an interest in nutrition.

If you trust thousands of years of human evolution and wisdom, rather than chose a refined table salt, seek out traditionally made sea salt (sun and clay vats) or mined salt and at the very least you will augment your magnesium, calcium and potassium intake, and you will more than likely be quite healthy even if you ingest a goodly amount of it. Beware of sticker shock however. Good sea salt or earth-mined salt is over a dollar an ounce whereas refined table salt trades at under a dollar a pound.

July 18, 2007