The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 9, 2001

Saying it all about salt
Maharaaj K. Koul

"Heaven knows a civilised life is impossible without salt." — Pliny

IN ancient Greece it was common to exchange salt for slaves, which resulted in the phrase ‘not worth his salt’. Salt was so valuable in ancient Rome that it was doled out to Julius Caesar’s soldiers as part of their pay, called the salarium from which the word ‘salary’ has been derived.

In his sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ exhorted the faithful: You are the salt of the earth. Mahatma Gandhi began his second Satyagraha Movement through the Dandi March by breaking the law prohibiting private salt manufacture. Salt, a miraculous gift of nature, is one of most useful and amazing minerals on Earth derived from the sea and rocks. Do you know that it is the only rock that humans can eat? If all the oceans in the world dried up, there would be 4,419,330 cubic miles of rock salt left that is enough to cover the entire United States in a 1.5-miles-deep layer. An underground salt mine in the town of Wieliczka, Poland, has been in continuous operation for over 1,000 years now!

Salt has seasoned our history, language and food, besides making nutritious foods more palatable. Used in all bakery products, prepared foods, sauces, soups, spices, cereals, dairy foods, meats, poultry. It is also an extraordinary effective food preservative, retarding the growth of spoilage by micro-organisms and making food storage possible long before refrigeration.


Eat bacon for breakfast, pizza or a readymade sandwich for lunch and smoked fish for supper, and you would, without a thought, be well over the average daily salt intake. Throw in the odd cream cracker, roasted peanuts or even a bowl of cornflakes which, surprisingly, can have more salt than a bag of crisps — and you would be an unwitting salt addict!

A physical education teacher, Xiang Zhaocheng, 55, of Mangjiang county in southern China’s Hunan Province, has acquired a habit of eating at least half a kg of salt a day to feel better. He would rather have no meat for three days, than a day without salt. Doctors who examined Xiang recently were amazed to find he had not been physically affected by the large intake of salt. He appears younger than other people of his age. Xiang acquired the taste for salt in 1990 when he was hospitalised for acute appedicitis, and was healed by taking Chinese traditional medicines.

How much salt is necessary for human consumption? Medical experts agree that everyone should practise some reasonable ‘moderation’ in salt consumption. For the average person, a moderate amount might run from 4 to 10 gm a day, or roughly half to one and one-third teaspoons. The equivalent of one to two gm of this salt allowance would come from the natural sodium in food. The rest would be added in processing, preparation or at the table.

Common salt, a chloride of sodium, is chemically represented by the symbol NaCl. The human body has a continual need for salt. Sodium chloride or the common salt is 39 per cent sodium and 61 per cent chloride. Forming a solution in the body, these two components separate into sodium and chloride ions, each with a different task. Chloride maintains the balance of water between the living cell and its environment, plays a part in digestion, and pairs with sodium to maintain the blood’s acid-base balance, critical for life. Sodium assists in regulating the volume of blood and blood pressure. It facilitates the transmission of nerve impulses and is necessary for heart and muscle contractions.

Although the popular conception is salt is as a flavour enhancer, a recent American study suggests that it functions as a flavour filter on food, selectively enhancing and suppressing various tastes. Other studies showed that the use of salt suppresses the bitter taste of dark green vegetables like bitter gourd (karela).

Salt’s functions in the body are already elucidated. Deficiency signs include lethargy, dizziness, cramps and palpitation. In women ,excessive salt intake promotes fluid retardation and can cause breast pain.

But what the good salt can do, in the right dose, is unequalled:

  • Snorers should try spraying their nose with a salt water to moisten mucous membrane and make it easier to breathe.

  • To invigorate the body when tired or to remove dead skin cells, rub a handful of salt all over your body before having a bath.

  • Salt baths encourage detoxification and greatly help muscle and joint pains. Add a pound of salt to a comfortably hot bath and lie in it for 20 minutes, add hot water as it cools. Wrap up in cotton towels and get into a warm bed. You should perspire freely, sleep well and feel much better in the morning.

  • Remove all the congestion in your throat by saline gargles.

The recommendation that no one should exclude salt totally from the diet is awfully wrong. Scientists are of the view that salt is an invisible killer and, therefore, a health hazard. As new evidence piles up; alarm bells have started ringing. And the next battle might just be against salt!

However, most dietary precautions handed out to the world at large are taken with a pinch of salt. Literally! Namkeens may be Yumkeens, but this appetite for things salty poses a major risk to health. Specialists are convinced that a diet high in salt causes high blood pressure, a disorder that afflicts one-third of people above the age of 60. Moreover, this is a risk factor for two big killers — coronary heart disease and stroke.

Recently, a three-month old boy in Britain died because of too much salt in his diet. And psychologists at the University of Washington, US, believe a taste for salt is programmed in the womb. They found that toddlers whose mothers suffered from morning sickness preferred salty solutions. Their report in the journal Appetite, suggests that vomiting causes dehydration and the loss of body salts, which could explain the link.

According to public health experts, we eat about three or four times as much salt as we need. And, consequently, one person in four, over the age of 40, has blood pressure at an early and an unhealthy level. The latest evidence, reported recently in The Lancet, is refuelling the debate and leading to calls for the food industry to produce less salty products and for the general public to consume less salt.

Why do we crave salt? It is an acquired taste which we can lose in about two months if we follow a low-salt diet strictly!

Some people love the taste of salt but if you eat too much salt, the receptors on the tongue are deadened and you need more to taste. Anyone who has cut down on dietary salt will have noticed that food tastes insipid for a while but then taste returns while even ‘normal’ salt in the dishes to them taste excessive. Salt, however, is used increasingly by the food industry to give flavour to tasteless ingredients and to bulk up products cheaply. And the high salt content boosts the water content so that more drink is sold to people who eat salty snacks. In India, the emergence of the ‘working women’ and disposable incomes is gradually creating a market for processed foods. There is a need to recognise the dangers that lurk behind these foods. A regulatory mechanism should be devised that these food products do not jeopardise public health. How about a statutory warning on food packs as a first step?

Some salty facts

  • Taste your food before you salt it. Many of us have the habit of reaching out for salt automatically. Give your tastebuds a chance. Gradually reduce the amount you add.

  • Australian scientists found that when the hole in salt cellar was half the usual size, people added half the usual quantity.

  • Experiment with other spices and herbs. Try using fresh black pepper, dry mustard, onions, lemon juice and hot peppers to make up for salt.

  • There is sodium in garlic. Other sources include sodium bicarbonate; sodium nitrite, a preservative, and monosodium glutamate, used to enhance flavour.

  • Check labels on all packaged food for sodium content. Experts suggest that giving salt content as sodium needs to be multiplied by 2.5 to give the true salt content.

  • Experts suggest that you eat potassium-rich foods. A study in the US showed that people who eat high-potassium foods excrete more sodium in their urine.

  • Limit intake of high-salt foods as much as possible. Cut down on cured and smoked meats, sausages, savoury snacks and crisps, canned vegetables, canned and packed soups, ketchup and other sauces, pickles, baked beans, fast foods and takeaways, including Chinese.