Time to rehabilitate salt

We're frequently being told to cut salt out of our diet, but are the warnings too cautious?

While cooking a huge tortilla for my extended family yesterday, I made an equally huge concession: I left out the salt.

For me a decent tortilla, in fact pretty much a decent anything on the savoury agenda, needs to be cooked with a good helping of salt. I was brought up on practically salt-free cooking, but boy, when you get a proper hit of the salty stuff it sure does dig its claws in quickly.

Salt has a bad reputation

We’re told that salt is devil food: a danger to one’s health and happiness and a one-way ticket to heart disease. Yet all devilish foodstuffs have something inherently naughty about them. They probably wouldn’t taste quite so manna-ish otherwise.

I was introduced to its hydration-sapping glory as an undergrad. Of course, I had poked down many a bag of crisps or salted nuts in my time, but shaking the salt cellar enthusiastically over a plate of boiled veg was a new activity to me. Given the fact our university hall veg was boiled for about three hours, it became a necessary daily ritual.

At the time, this can’t have been a good thing, because all we ate apart from the salted veg were burgers and other processed foods, which are always high in salt.

But when I became mistress of my own kitchen once more, I realised that I could cut a deal with my inner salt addict – I would avoid most processed foods, but I could behave with sluttish abandon when it came to cooking with salt or adding it to home-cooked foods.

Salt is vital

We need salt, you see. Six grams a day, according to the experts. Very few of us won’t pick that up from a supermarket sandwich or a carton of soup, but if you do prepare all your own food at home, it is crucial you incorporate some salt into your diet.

Sea salt (the best kind) contains about 80 different minerals that the body needs, some of which are only found in salt.

We need it to balance all sorts of bodily functions, from aiding food absorption to preventing muscle cramps and maintaining bone health.

A common misconception is that a high salt intake leads to high blood pressure, whereas salt is actually essential for the regulation of blood pressure, along with water, and of course the amounts matter.

Salt can prevent heart disease

Now a new study has appeared to confuse things further. A recent issue of the Journal of American Medical Association reported that not only do we need a minimum of salt in our diet, but that those who consumed a large amount of salt were in no way less healthy than those sticking to the rulebook.

As it happens, the guinea pigs with less salty diets were more likely to die from heart disease, so the study (of 3,681 healthy European men and women aged 60 or younger, for eight years) concluded that salt may well reduce the incidence of heart disease.

Those who consumed the least salt were 56% more likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than the others. The participants were split into thirds, of low, medium and high salt intake. Fifty in the lowest group died from heart disease, 24 in the medium group and just ten in the high intake group.

Don’t completely ignore the salt warnings

We shouldn’t let this blind us to the findings of countless other reports, which have found salt to be a deadly killer. An Australian report in March found that eating a salty meal can significantly impair the arteries’ ability to pump blood around the body in just 30 minutes.

It is said that 17,000 lives a year in the UK could be saved by getting average salt consumption down to a few grams a day.

I’m not playing Russian roulette with a carton of finest Maldon flakes, nor am I suggesting you raise my stakes. But what these studies prove, if anything, is that the true effect of salt on the body is as yet unclear, and that eating a certain amount is vital.

We don’t need proof that salt is delicious. Sprinkled on avocado-smeared toast or a soft-boiled egg, or added to any soup or curry – you’ll feel cheated by a salt-free substitute.

And as for that tortilla…I left out the salt as a gesture to the little ones, for whom salt can be very dangerous indeed. Still, a bit of salt on their tortilla might well be a damn sight healthier than a Happy Meal. Tastier, too.

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