Sea salt: The “healthy” salt?

Salt – it’s my one weakness.

Ok, maybe cute baby animals, chips and salsa, and bookstores rank as highly for that title, but salt is up there.

NaCl

So when you hear the rumor that perhaps one salt is ‘healthier’ than another, it is something I felt I had to investigate. And in honor of Salt Awareness Week (Jan 27 – Feb 2), I provide this timely blog about my research on the long-toted healthy alternative, sea salt.

First of all, what is salt, anyway? Essentially, if we break it down to basic chemistry, it’s a sodium and a chlorine compound (40:60 compound ratio in a teaspoon) that when they dissolve in fluids (like water or blood), they break down into charged ion molecules called electrolytes. Sodium (Na) is one of eight essential electrolytes our body uses every day (along with potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, chloride, bicarbonate, and sulfate).

So what do we like about electrolytes? They help our bodies do a number of things like manage fluid flow in and out of cells, blood pressure/blood flow, and even keeps our blood pH at an even 7.4.

So salt isn’t bad. We need salt. But as the old saying goes, anything in excess can turn into “too much of a good thing.”

The suggested daily intake for any healthy American, says the USDA, is between 1500-2300 mg or less a day. That’s less than a teaspoon! I certainly use a lot more than that over a day’s time. In a recent project for one of my classes, I discovered I was personally averaging about 6,000 mg a day.

Oops.

Where we run into trouble isn’t just the salt shaker sitting innocuously on our dinner tables. It’s that many people depend on convenience, prepared foods (and we’re not even talking about fast food here) packed with sodium. According to www.diet.com, about 75 percent of the average American diet’s salt comes from processed foods (from the store or out at restaurants), while only about 15 percent comes from natural sources already in the separate food items themselves.

Just for a sneak peek, here are some of the saltiest prepared dishes in American restaurants. Buyer beware (and be-aware!).

And why should we be mindful about how much salt we consume? A regular diet containing an overabundance of salt can lead to high blood pressure, which bumps up your risks enormously in potentially suffering a stroke, heart attack, or kidney damage.

Over the last year and a half, I have completely cut out all processed foods. So I thought I was untouchable when it came to sodium intake. How wrong I was! That sodium count I came up with during my assignment startled me. And it got me thinking. If I’m still overshooting that mark by a few thousand milligrams, I can’t imagine what an average American eats on a daily basis.

The end result was that I still had to cut out some salt somewhere. But how?

I’d tried depending on herbs for flavor, but I still missed that tart, stinging taste of salt. My research got me to thinking about the plethora of salts out there, and wondered about the sodium content. Did they differ? Or was it simply about taste? I had heard about sea salt for ages, especially, and the rumblings about its health benefits as opposed to common table salt. So before blindly purchasing a shiny new container of sea salt, I decided to investigate these claims.

One rumor I kept hearing over and over was that there was less sodium in sea salt. According to one answer on the subject, Timothy S. Harland aka Dr. Gourmet agreed, and wrote in response that yes, “sea salt products will be lower in sodium.”

He explained that this would be on account of the difference in crystal size between the two salts.

“The [sea salt] crystals are larger and more irregular and a teaspoon is less dense,” Gourmet wrote. “A teaspoon of table salt such as good, old-fashioned Morton Salt in the round blue box weighs 6 grams. The Nutrition Facts on the box reports this as having 2,360 mg per teaspoon (the USDA database reports this as 2,325 mg in a teaspoon).

“A teaspoon of sea salt from Whole Foods, in contrast, weighs 4.8 grams. Consequently, there is less salt as well as less sodium (listed on the box as 1,680 mg per teaspoon).”

Hmm. Okay, I thought to myself. But on the other side of the argument, EHow said that, “When measured by weight, sea salt and table salt usually contain about the same amount of sodium chloride.”

I needed to find my own evidence to settle this argument once and for all. So, I went to the store and did my own comparison (regular salt on left, sea salt on right):

Nutrition of Salt

Hmmm. It would appear that the rumor of sea salt containing less “sodium” had a kernel of truth to it. But a few milligrams’ difference simply didn’t “wow” me enough as a sure-fire answer to this burning question. So, I pressed on.

I decided to break open a package of sea salt and see for myself.

But before even tasting it, there came another conundrum – iodized salt or non iodized? I discovered while examining the cover of the sea salt that it did not have iodine, as many nutrition experts suggest you buy. Was I suddenly opening myself up for any number of ailments from iodine deficiency? Well, you be the judge.

In the end, I have discovered that it wasn’t crystal size or sodium content in either of these salts: It all boiled down to taste, as it usually does for this foodie *points thumbs inward*. I found that the sea salt was simply much “saltier” tasting than your common table salt.

As Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian and representative of the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, explains it, both salts have the same amount of sodium, but its flavor is much more noticeable.

“Some people think you can add flavor with less salt with sea salt,” Lemond said. “You’re actually using less salt, so it would be less sodium because it is less salt.”

Aha! Mystery solved!

Perhaps the increase in taste does have to do with crystal size: I cannot say. But overall, I know I definitely have decreased my salting habit by about 3/4 of what it once was. I, personally, find that pretty incredible. So, while we should all try to keep our salt use down to a minimum, there will be those times we feel we need an extra dash to enjoy our meal.

My suggestion? If garlic or some other pretty zesty seasoning or salt alternative (like lemon juice) just doesn’t cut it for you, sea salt is most definitely the way to go as opposed to table salt. Just be careful: Go easy at first. You’ll be surprised just how little sea salt you need to get that salty flavor you’re looking for.

Bon appetit, everyone!

‘Eating out’: Numbers on menus not enough to ward us off overeating

Eating out is such a major part of any social scene these days. Bowling teams, coworkers, women embarking on a girl’s night: They all pile into a restaurant that can accommodate large groups of hungry people, to enjoy the atmosphere, the company, and a great, savory meal that just magically appears before them.

Heck, even the term for dating is to “go out” to eat with someone, in the old stereotypical dinner and a movie date.

The act alone of going out to eat has an indulgent ring to it, am I right? While some people (who probably, for health reasons) count those calories or keep an eye on those carbs when perusing their menus, the mandated law requiring chain restaurants to list nutrition information of its meals appears to be going to waste on the general public. Why?

An article published earlier last week by Carol Tice called “Calories on Restaurant Menus Won’t Make Us Eat Less — But Here’s One Thing That Might” makes a very valid point on this very American behavior  called “eating out.”

Think about it: Why do we “eat out?” Just the term alone seems to indicate treating ourselves, getting together with friends, and just having a good time. It’s time to let our hair down and celebrate – as well as forget about the worry and frustrations of the week, the stresses of our jobs or conflicts with people in our lives. Heck, the whole reason why we “eat out” is because we’re trying to avoid the work of preparing yet another meal this week. We want to be pampered, and let someone else cook for us. It’s hard to fault us with that mentality.

But what also gets thrown out the window are healthy choices, portion sizes, etc. After a hard day, week, whatever it is we’re escaping from to an evening of indulgent behavior for, we also shut down our brains about how many calories are in that third beer we just polished off, or how much we’ll hate ourselves in the morning for that BIG plate of chili cheese fries we just ordered. Why do we care, right? We’re eating out! We deserve to “treat” ourselves, and peh, it’s only one meal! We’re not there to count calories.

Available online for chain restaurants or right in front of you on your menus, how many of us actually pay attention to the nutrition facts when we go out to eat? Not enough to make a difference.

I, eyes cast sheepishly downward, admit to adopting that mindset as an infrequent restaurant patron myself.

While it seems an almost useless endeavor to require restaurants to comply with the new law to post nutritional info for the majority of us, it’s still a great tool to have when we decide to use it.

So – if those scary calorie numbers on our menus aren’t whipping Americans into shape, what is the answer? Probably nothing short of a miracle, unless we get restaurants to start serving healthier meals and smaller portion sizes.

And, as the article points out, that’s where Halfsies comes in.

Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, neither did I until today! But the concept behind this organization is actually pretty novel, and could work, if more people were aware of it. The video below gives you an inkling about their vision:

As an eat-out more than eat-in nation, Halfsies certainly gives us food for thought…

But until the initiative gains momentum, here are some tips for eating healthier when out to eat, while still having a good time, from Choose My Plate:

  • As a beverage choice, ask for water or order fat-free or low-fat milk, unsweetened tea, or other drinks without added sugars.
  • Ask for whole-wheat bread for sandwiches.
  • In a restaurant, start your meal with a salad packed with veggies, to help control hunger and feel satisfied sooner.
  • Ask for salad dressing to be served on the side. Then use only as much as you want.
  • Veggie kebobsChoose main dishes that include vegetables, such as stir fries, kebobs, or pasta with a tomato sauce.
  • Order steamed, grilled, or broiled dishes instead of those that are fried or sautéed.
  • Choose a small” or “medium” portion. This includes main dishes, side dishes, and beverages.
  • Order an item from the menu instead heading for the “all-you-can-eat” buffet.
  • If main portions at a restaurant are larger than you want, try one of these strategies to keep from overeating:
    • Order an appetizer-sized portion or a side dish instead of an entrée.
    • Share a main dish with a friend.
    • If you can chill the extra food right away, take leftovers home in a “doggy bag.”
    • When your food is delivered, set aside or pack half of it to go immediately.
    • Resign from the “clean your plate club” – when you’ve eaten enough, leave the rest.
  • To keep your meal moderate in calories, fat, and sugars:
    • Ask for salad dressing to be served “on the side” so you can add only as much as you want.
    • Order foods that do not have creamy sauces or gravies
    • Add little or no butter to your food.
    • Choose fruits for dessert most often.
  • On long commutes or shopping trips, pack some fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, low-fat string cheese sticks, or a handful of unsalted nuts to help you avoid stopping for sweet or fatty snacks.