A Raw Food UK Forum survey reported that 60% of raw fooders add salt to their food, with 40% choosing not to. Should we ingest our sodium from plant foods alone, or add sodium chloride (however Celtic, Himalayan etc...) to our raw food? What are the 84 elements in unrefined sea salt? How healthy is your raw food diet?
When I went raw, I soon found that the sea salt I'd been buying from the supermarket was just not the ticket. 'De rigeur' at raw food workshops was unrefined sea salt - first grey, then fashionable pink, then back to grey. I was told it had health benefits - 'all those trace minerals'!
Then I began to notice that some people didn't add any salt to their raw food, and, confused by the claims made for the various (expensive) brands, decided to research salt, the results of which I now share with you.
In this two-part article, I'll be discussing whether sodium in plant foods is sufficient to meet our bodies' needs, whether it is healthful to supplement this with sodium from sodium chloride via unrefined sea salt, and, in Part 2, whether raw fooders are in danger of ingesting too much sodium chloride, however 'unrefined' or 'raw' it is. And, for those who would like to reduce their intake of sodium chloride, some suggestions as to how to do so.
You'll hear it said that 'salt is essential for health'. Those trying to sell sea salt to us will often say this. Well, yes it is, but only in the sense that 'mineral salts' (of various kinds) are essential for health. Sodium is just one of these salts. Sodium is essential for health. But sodium chloride isn't essential for health (more later).
In a physiological context, sodium is an electrolyte, along with potassium and other minerals. Electrolytes become ions in solution and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. Sodium, working with potassium, maintains fluid balance in our bodies and is involved in nervous system function.
Sodium is contained in all plant foods to some degree. It is also 40% of the mineral compound sodium chloride (NaCl), which is salt from sea or lakes. Even 'rock salt' is still sea salt - from seas millions of years ago.
If raw fooders can obtain sodium from plant foods, why do some then add sodium chloride to their food? Generally, for one or all of the following reasons:
They doubt their sodium needs can be met by plant foods alone.
They believe unrefined sea salt to be healthful.
They like the taste and feel food can taste bland without it.
I'll be examining each of the above in the two parts of this article, but first let's discuss to what extent it's 'natural' to ingest sodium chloride.
Salt has indeed been added to food for thousands of years. But of course we've been killing each other, eating meat and...cooking our food for thousands of years. As raw fooders we should know the 'thousands of years' argument doesn't wash as a good reason for doing anything. And it looks as if we might have managed fine without sodium chloride before then, or at least ingested very little. As naturopathic doctor Tim Trader says: 'Anthropology has found no sodium-chloride deposits in early bones of human remains, though you can find it in most anyone of western civilization today.'
Is the adding of salt universal? There are many 'undeveloped' cultures who add either no, or virtually no, sodium chloride to their food, such as the Yanomamo Indians of South America. Not to mention thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, in the (mainly) Western 'raw food' culture.
Do animals add salt to their food? Some animals (mainly herbivores, it is claimed) have been observed going out of their way to lick salty mineral deposits exposed by harsh weather. As we know salt on roads melts ice, some could in fact be going for the water rather than the salt, due to their usual sources being frozen over, but it seems that this is not the case in all occurrences of this behaviour. But I've found no evidence to suggest 'salt-licking' is universal, even amongst herbivores. Also, we don't know whether they're going for sodium chloride rather than any other mineral salts in the deposit, and animals that do do this certainly don't do it every day.
Can our sodium needs be met by plant foods alone?
(Sources (official and unofficial) vary by country, so I've averaged out.)
'Acceptable maximum': 1600 mg (UK/US average consumption 4000 mg+ daily!)
'Ideal maximum': 1200 mg or less
As to what is a safe minimum, sources again vary. Several say 500 mg, some say lower. Raw food nutritionist Adam Greer recommends 350 mg as a safe minimum. DHSS 'Dietary Reference Values' (1991) reports some adults healthy on intakes as low as 69 mg, and when I asked on raw food forums for average daily sodium intakes, figures came in as low as 30 mg - and some of those individuals had high levels of physical activity. It appears many can be apparently healthy at relatively low levels of sodium, that is, without exhibiting signs of sodium deficiency. (Deficiency symptoms would include confusion, tiredness, nausea, muscle cramps, and a drop in blood pressure. However, note 'low' blood pressure is generally considered healthy - it's just a sudden drop that might cause concern.)
I do occasionally have sodium chloride (although I've cut down my consumption drastically since researching for this article). I totted up my own intake of sodium on a no-sodium-chloride day; my diet consisted of spinach/celery/apple juice, cantaloupe melon, papayas, pumpkin seeds, banana-date smoothie and lettuce/tomato/avocado wraps. Calories totalled 2100. At 360 mg of sodium I'd only just scraped past Adam's figure, although way higher than the intake of other healthy raw fooders I know. And at just 105 lbs, and feeling healthy, I'm happy with that intake. Heavier people eating eg 3000-calories' worth of food similar to mine would find themselves just above the more official 'safe minimum'. My hunch is that those 'safe minimum' figures are overestimates of what we actually need; it could be that even the minimums are influenced by the fact that so many people (including the scientists who set the figures) think it's fine (and even healthy) to ingest a little sodium chloride and that there are so few individuals for them to study who do not.
The fact that the many raw fooders who add no sodium chloride at all to their food are healthy, and exhibiting no signs of sodium deficiency suggests that there is no problem obtaining sufficient sodium from plant foods alone.
Some raw fooders, especially those on high-fruit diets, have wondered if on a relatively low sodium diet they can have 'too much potassium' (as potassium and sodium work together in the body and need to be present in certain proportions). Dr Doug Graham ('80/10/10 Diet') tells us that, although potassium excess is 'not impossible', cases of potassium overload amongst healthy raw fooders are unknown. The only group that does need to be careful is those who have kidney malfunction.
'Instinctive eating' theory (Schaeffer) suggests that we should be fine as long as we don't eat more of high-potassium foods than our bodies genuinely desire. IE theory says that if we are a little low on any nutrient our bodies will set up a search for foods rich in that nutrient, and those foods will consequently taste particularly good to us at those times. For example, I find spinach (a relatively high-sodium vegetable) tastes delicious some days, and ordinary on others. It could just be that some days my sodium needs a little topping up but other days my body has no need for it.
What if we really feel we need more sodium?
These plant foods are particularly good sources:
Sea vegetables (generally), 40g dry, 450 mg sodium
Coconut water, 1 cup, 252 mg
Honeydew melon, 1 medium, 205 mg
Celeriac, 1 cup, 156 mg
Swiss chard, 2 cups, 154 mg
Cantaloupe melon, 1 medium, 88 mg
Carrots, 2 medium, 84 mg
Sweet potato, 1 medium, 72 mg
Beet, 1 medium (2 in), 64 mg
Celery, 2 stalks, 64 mg
Beets, 1 medium, 64 mg
Kale, 2 cups, 58 mg
Spinach, 2 cups, 48 mg
(Source: USDA Nutrient Database)
(note that although tomatoes can taste 'salty', they are relatively low in sodium. The salty taste is likely to be due to high levels of glutamate and/or chloride.)
Is unrefined sea salt healthful?
Some Natural Hygienists writing in the 80s and earlier maintained that our bodies cannot utilise the sodium from sodium chloride. Well, researching this, it would seem that this is probably not the case; we can obtain sodium from sodium chloride. However, virtually all health experts agree that our bodies assimilate sodium much more easily from plant food than via sodium chloride, and I'll explain why they say that.
First let's be clear what 'unrefined' sea salt is. It's been drummed into the heads of many health seekers that table salt is the devil, but unrefined sea salt is OK and even good, and some of us (eg me in the past) have understood that that's because table salt is sodium chloride, as if unrefined sea salt isn't! My son educated me: 'Mum, it's still sodium chloride. It may be 'natural', but even if it's collected in little organic baskets by little organic people, it's still sodium chloride.'
Table salt is 99% sodium chloride, unprocessed sea salt is 84% sodium chloride - so, still mostly sodium chloride. And in fact, by dry weight, unprocessed sea salt is actually 95-99% sodium chloride; 'the only reason 'unprocessed' sea salts have a lower sodium content is because they still contain a lot of moisture.' (Frederic Patenaude)
Table salt is kiln-dried, whereas unrefined sea salt is sun and wind-dried.
Table salt is treated with chemicals such as bleach and anti-caking agents, and, sure, unrefined sea salt isn't - it's pretty much as it comes out of the sea.
Table salt has been stripped of virtually all the minerals additional to sodium and chloride. Sea salt still contains them. I'll tell you what they are in Part 2.
If you add a little salt (table or unrefined sea salt) to a glass of body-heat water you will find most of it dissolves. It's separating into sodium ions and chloride ions. But a little remains undissolved.
I've been discussing with people knowledgeable in chemistry what happens when sodium chloride enters our bodies. And, guess what - they don't all agree, and...they don't know for sure. One suggested that as our body fluids aren't pure water, it's possible that more of the sodium chloride could stay undissolved than when mixed with water. On the other hand, another suggested that, as electrolysis separates ions, electrical forces in our body might allow them to break down the sodium chloride more easily than when simply mixed with water. Consensus was that at least some of the sodium chloride will remain in the body as sodium chloride and we do know that bodies fail to break down at least some sodium chloride because it's found in bodily excretions. And bones. Our bodies can't do anything useful with sodium chloride that remains as sodium chloride - on the contrary, it gives them a problem.
Do our bodies find it easier to get sodium from unrefined sea salt than table salt? Yes. That's because table salt (and other processed sea salts sold simply as 'sea salt') has been heated to such a high temperature, with various chemicals added, that the resulting substance is unnatural, and therefore difficult for our bodies to cope with. Nutritionist Dr Ann Gittleman: 'refined salt is...treated with anti-caking agents which prevent salt absorbing water in salt cellars. Unfortunately, anti-caking agents perform the same process in the body, stopping the salt dissolving and combining with fluids in stomach and digestive system.'
But do our bodies find it easier to get sodium from unrefined sea salt than plant foods? Unequivocally no. Sodium from plant foods wins. It's more bioavailable, due to chelation (binding) to organic molecules. (Note that some raw fooders describe sodium from plant food as 'organic' sodium, as it is found within living plants. But, in chemical terms, sodium is inorganic, regardless of where it's found.)
If we obtain our sodium from plant food only, there is no risk of sodium chloride depositing in our bodies. Build-up of sodium chloride can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, those creaky joints that people put down to 'age'. Sodium chloride deposits will accumulate as we get older. Also, when salt can't be excreted, the deposits in the body cause the cells to contract and discharge fluid, resulting in dehydration and contraction of the arteries, causing high blood pressure.
So, taking these things into account, can unrefined sea salt be described as healthful? I can't see how. Although it's a source of sodium, the body finds it so much easier to get sodium from plant food. And, although the risk of build-up in the body of sodium chloride deposits from unrefined sea salt may be less than with table salt, there's still a risk.
PLEASE NOW TURN TO PART 2 of the article, in which we'll hear from raw food experts who believe unrefined sea salt is the opposite of healthful. I'll also be looking at what's in the salt, specifically those '84 minerals' we hear so much about. I'll then be looking at the amount of salt in raw food recipes and comparing this with cooked vegan recipes, and showing how raw fooders may be at risk of developing a salt addiction where there was none before! I'll then give some suggestions for those who would like to reduce (or cut out altogether) their consumption of salt, however 'unrefined'.