Let me be your salty dog
Or I won’t be your man at all
Honey, let me be your salty dog.
–Salty Dog Blues, the Morris Brothers version
I’ve been meaning to get to salt for a while and finally it’s time. Salt is an enormous issue in the world of food. Some people view salt crystals as little granules of plague; other people see it as a life-saver. There’s also confusion about salt and sodium. Simply put, salt is sodium and chloride together. One gram of salt has about 394 grams of sodium. As is usual here at askmehowithappened, we’re going to preface our discussion by just coming right out and saying it:
1. Salt is absolutely essential, and it is very hard to eat too much of it if you’re eating real food.
2. There is very poor evidence linking a high sodium diet to heart disease; there is mounds of evidence that a low sodium diet does nothing whatsoever to help your blood pressure problems.
3. You are much more at risk from a low sodium diet than from a high sodium one.
So let’s talk about the evidence, and of course before we do that we’ll have to talk about the history. This is partly because I like history, but mostly because history can help inform our current feelings about this amazing little chemical bond.
The Importance of Salt in History
Salt has always been an indispensable part of human life. Salt was once a commodity of trade so important that the history of it reads like our current international contortions over oil. People were concerned about “dependence on foreign salt, ” and nations with good salt deposits relied on them to conquer the world. Salt was more important than any other single commodity.
In Chinese legend, the mythical emperor Huangdi presided over the first war for salt. In his day, huge settlements–not mythical at all, and some of the most ancient archeologists have ever found–were built around Lake Yuncheng, where salt was harvested every summer. Then there was Li Bing, governor of Sichuan province in 250 BC. He was great hydraulic engineering genius; so much so that he has attained semi-deification in China. He presided over the building of a dam that changed the flood plains of Sichuan so dramatically that the province became a premier agricultural center: the “Land of Abundance”. Li Bing also lived during a crossroads in China’s history, when centuries of fighting had finally ended with a unified China. This new nation was embroiled in a debate about government, and thoughts about government worked themselves out in discussions of salt.
Governments of Chinese states had taxed salt for centuries: since the twentieth century BC. One side believed in very practical ideas for the furtherance of government (and lining their own pockets), and their big idea was to fix the price of salt higher than the purchase price, so that the state could import salt and sell it at a profit. Says the Guanzi, a book of economic advice believed to have been written by a minister at the time:
Even though we have not produced it ourselves, [meaning salt] we can take advantage of other states to make profits by regulating the price…Imagine that you were going to issue an order as follows: “I am going to collect head money upon all of you people, both adults and children.” They would certainly remonstrate loudly and angrily against you. However, if you take firm control over the policy on salt, the people cannot manage to dodge it even though you are going to take a profit of one hundred times over.
The minister goes on to say that people in areas without salt were ill from the lack of it; therefore they would be desperate enough to pay anything for it. He estimated the annual intake of salt for a Chinese man to be 5 1/2 sheng, which (long calculation; won’t go into it here) was equal to about 2,546,392 mg of sodium. That, if you’re keeping track, is about 6,900mg of sodium a day. Women typically had 4 1/2 sheng and children 2 1/2.
Stop and think about that for a second.
Coincidentally, this news article references recent studies demonstrating the likely high and low salt thresholds for people are 7,000mg and 3,000mg respectively. Go over 7,000, and you are more likely to have a heart attack. Go under 3,000 ,and it’s even more dangerous. Now you aren’t just more likely to have the attack; you’re more likely to die from it.
If the ancient Chinese were any indication, that research is spot on, and ancient Chinese men naturally consumed around 6,900mg, the women around 5,500, and the children around 3,000.
Salt was just as important everywhere else. Every nation used it to cure meats and fish and to create extremely salty sauces and pickled products to be added to every meal. In 1912, the American psychologist Ernest Jones said:
In all ages salt has been invested with a significance far exceeding that inherent in its natural properties, interesting and important as these are. Homer calls it a divine substance, Plato describes it as especially dear to the gods, and we shall presently note the importance attached to it in religious ceremonies, covenants, and magical charms. That this should have been so in all parts of the world and in all times shows that we are dealing with a general human tendency and not with any local custom, circumstance or notion.
Jones then goes on to explain his idiotic Freudian theory that salt=sex, and at this point we abandon him in pursuit of the sane. But up to that point he’s quite right about the importance of salt. What Ernest didn’t know back in 1912 was that he had actually underestimated the natural properties of salt, and the immense human need for it.
The Importance of Salt in You
Your heart right now contains enough sodium to fill three or four saltshakers, and bodily processes are constantly depleting this store. You must make that up, for without it, you can’t breathe or digest, your heart can’t beat properly, you can’t move your muscles, nor can you transport nutrients, oxygen, or nerve signals.
How much sodium you need to ingest depends on what you do, where you live, and what you eat. If you live in a hot, humid climate you need a lot more salt than those who live in temperate or cool regions. If you spend the whole day in the office, you need a lot less than someone lifting bales of hale. Red meat contains quite a bit of sodium naturally: enough that those who eat or ate an all meat diet (which–before you throw out your salad and eat nothing but steaks–always includes organs and bones, and sometimes blood) appear to get all the sodium they need from it. But vegetables have almost none, and they also contain a lot of potassium, which easily becomes imbalanced without enough salt. When any society has switched from nomadic herding or hunting to agriculture, they soon had to go hunting for salt sources.
When you don’t have enough salt, you first get headaches. Then you feel tired and light-headed. Then you get nauseous. Then you black out. If you drop below an intake of 500mg in a day, you die. Most Americans on a standard American diet don’t ever feel any of these things because they ingest so much sodium in packaged, processed food. But if you switch to all fresh, real food you may easily start to have issues. Furthermore, if you are eating a low carb diet you need even more salt to avoid headaches, fatigue, and nausea. We’ll talk about why in our next post.
Plato says he’s hungry
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