Significantly reducing the risk of premature death from stroke, heart attack, civilisation diseases and their complications by reducing the sodium content of the table salt we now use and adding potassium – according to one of the largest nutrition research studies ever conducted.
The study, presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris, demonstrated that both high sodium intake and low potassium intake are common worldwide and both are closely associated with the current leading causes of death in developed societies. Such a modified salt substitute product, in which a portion of sodium chloride is replaced by potassium chloride, could provide a solution to both problems, the researchers suggest.
We often hear about the dangers of eating sugar, fat, artificial and over-refined foods – but relatively little about the dangers of salt consumption. Excessive salt intake is one of the great nutritional problems of our modern age and can have serious health consequences. Excessive salt intake of more than 5 grams per day is responsible for around three million deaths every year. However, as complex and intricate as the way our bodies work, the issue of salt intake is also a nuanced one: too little is not good – and it doesn’t matter what kind of salt we use! So let’s look at this issue.
What salts are there?
You can find different types of salt in shops, depending on where it comes from – sea salt, rock salt, Himalayan salt. They can be refined or unrefined and can vary in grain size: coarse, fine, crystal or flake. The origin of the salt influences its trace element content, but in all cases the main constituents are sodium and chloride.
NaCl, or sodium chloride table salt, as we know it now, consists of two main components: sodium in a proportion of about 40% and chlorine in the remaining proportion of about 60%. Some salts contain additives in a proportion of about 2.5%, such as iodine in so-called sea salt.
Sodium, together with chlorine and potassium, regulates the body’s fluid balance. It plays an important role in the transmission of impulses and thus in the proper functioning of nerves and muscles, as well as in the regulation of blood pressure and the activation of certain enzymes. It also plays a role in maintaining acid-base balance, carbohydrate and protein metabolism, and osmotic pressure.
A few words about sodium
Although sodium is essential for the proper functioning of the body, as it is one of the most important macronutrients, 1.5-2 grams per day is absolutely enough to meet the daily sodium requirements of a healthy adult. Obviously, we consume much more than this from table salt alone: 2 grams of sodium is equivalent to 5 grams of table salt, so we have already exceeded our daily intake. Add to this the various processed products: baked goods, crisps, sauces, canned food, fast food, and so on.
In Hungary, according to the latest nutritional survey carried out by the National Institute of Food and Nutrition (OTÁP 2009), the intake of salt in women is 12 grams and in men 17.2 grams, more than 2.5 and 3.5 times the recommended intake respectively. According to the study, more than a third of the adult population’s salt intake from processed foods is from bread, nearly a quarter from meat products, and the rest from canned vegetables and pickles (not all canned foods and pickles contain salt, so always check the food label).
What about added iodine?
The iodine in salt, known as sea salt, is not naturally occurring and because of chloride, a halogen, the body can only metabolise about 10% of the 2.5%. What remains in the body is excreted in the urine in less than half an hour.
Why is excessive sodium consumption not good for us?
For every gram of excess sodium chloride, the body needs 23 grams of cell fluid to neutralise it. Too much processed salt causes the fluid to accumulate in tissues, leading to a number of health problems such as the big three: circulatory problems, high blood pressure, obesity and its consequences.
When too much table salt is consumed, excess sodium circulating in the bloodstream draws water into the blood vessels, increasing the volume of blood in them. When more blood flows through the blood vessels, blood pressure rises and high blood pressure can over time overload or damage the blood vessel walls and accelerate the build-up of clots that block blood flow. Elevated pressure strains the heart, making it harder for it to pump blood through our veins – causing it to work unnecessarily and exhaustingly.
Hypertension is also behind half of all strokes and coronary heart disease. These diseases are responsible for more than half of all deaths in Hungary.
People who are overweight, have circulatory or thyroid problems, or suffer from arthritic conditions should be very careful not to exceed the daily recommended intake of sodium. It also contributes to the development of cellulite by weakening connective tissue and worsens the severity of rheumatism, arthritis and gout.
However, the solution is not to avoid salt altogether
This is the case with sodium chloride table salt. However, as I mentioned in the introduction to this article, salt itself is essential for many physiological processes – anyone who has had a leg cramp at night would probably immediately agree with this statement.
It plays a role in the composition of bodily fluids: blood plasma, lymph fluid, extracellular fluid and even amniotic fluid are all salt components.
It has vital functions: transporting nutrients to and from cells.
It helps the inner walls of blood vessels to regulate blood pressure. It induces the transmission of regulated nerve impulses, helps send communication signals to the brain and muscles so they can send or require a switch of sodium potassium ions. This is vital for the heart muscle in particular, which is why it is very beneficial to consume salt with reduced sodium and increased potassium.
Why is potassium so important?
Potassium is also a macronutrient, a mineral that the body needs several hundred milligrams or grams of every day, 2-3 grams per day. Potassium plays an essential role in ensuring that cells function properly.
Potassium is crucial for the functioning of tissues such as nerve and muscle tissue, but the functioning of all other tissues is also dependent on the proper distribution of potassium ions. Potassium accumulates inside cells and excess is eliminated from the body in urine and faeces. It is very important in the transport of substances needed for cellular life functions across the cell membrane. Of particular importance is that the transport of hydrogen ions is also dependent on the presence of potassium, which is why potassium is essential for the acid-base balance of the body. It is thus able to influence changes in pH in a direction favourable to the body.
Potassium is also essential for the regulation of blood sugar levels and the body’s water turnover. It is necessary for the production of stomach acid and the normal functioning of many enzymes.
The effects of sodium and potassium on our bodies suggest that the former is needed in very small amounts and should be replaced by the latter. In other words, simply by changing the ratio of the ingredients in conventional table salt – less sodium, more potassium – we can reduce the risk of developing life-threatening diseases.