A Salted State
I recently read a book called Salt, A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. The book did exactly what the title suggests and gave me a comprehensive overview of the relationship humans have had with salt since the beginning of history.
There’s a huge amount of detail in the book. We humans have been seeking out salt for thousands of years and it’s only in the last 100 years that salt has been so abundant. Previously, salt was a precious commodity, like gold is today or high speed internet was in the 90s.
The high value salt used to hold got me thinking about how we treat salt now.
The words that historically come from “salt” illustrate how our attitudes have changed.
One of my favorite pieces of trivia from Salt, A World History was that the Romans called a man in love salax or “in a salted state”. It’s from there that we got the word salacious. For millennia, salt was seen as vital for life and so became associated with fertility and virility. Pretty much the opposite of what being salty means today.
Similarly, the word salad owes its origin to salt. Salad comes from Herba Salata or “Salted Vegetables”, a mixture of raw vegetables served in a salty dressing originally eaten by Romans. There’s more tension between past and present here because salad is seen as the quintessential healthy food, whereas salt doesn’t share that reputation.
So what gives? How did Salt go from being essential health food to something we’re supposed to avoid?
Salt - Don’t Sweat It
First things first, salt is an essential nutrient.
You need sodium to regulate the balance of fluids in your body. Sodium helps make sure you have the right volume of blood and lymph fluid, so it’s essential for cardiovascular health. It’s also vital for your nervous system, changes in the levels of sodium and chloride ions allow your neurons to send messages to other cells.
You get sodium through your food or added salt and lose it through sweating and urination. Your kidneys regulate the sodium in your body. Basically, your kidneys do a pretty awesome job of dealing with a wide variation in levels of sodium intake. When you consume a lot your kidneys just get rid of more through sweat and urine. When salt is scarce, your kidneys use it sparingly and still keep everything in balance.
Salt got a bad name because, in the 70s, it was blamed for the increase in hypertension, or high blood pressure, a risk factor for coronary heart disease. The logic ran like this: salt causes hypertension & hypertension causes coronary heart disease, so if you avoid salt and you will avoid coronary heart disease.
Like much of what the 70s gave us, this conclusion is a little suspect.
More recent and thorough research has failed to show that salt consumption and blood pressure increase together. If you want to go in depth on the difference between what the science says and what public policy recommends, read this. It has even emerged recently that there are significant risks to restricting salt.
A lot of the cultural value placed on salt is connected with it’s ability to preserve food. In an age of refrigeration this just isn’t as important as it used to be. It is still a pretty amazing substance and Salt, A World History, by Mark Kurlansky is required reading if food history does it for you.
From a health perspective, if you eat a diet of mostly whole foods you’re probably getting the right amount of salt. Your appetite for salty foods will take care of any variations. Like craving a greek salad with feta and olives after a summer hike (when you would sweat, losing sodium). As long as you’re not pounding fast food 24/7, it’s probably safe enough to not worry about too much salt.
So here’s to living in a salted state.