The web and social media are full of interesting health claims about different types of salts. Some say that rock salt can cure dozens of diseases, and a few advise taking black salt the first thing in the morning. While the WHO and governments are keen to supply iodine to the populations by iodizing edible salt, some see it as a cure worse than the deficiency iodization seeks to eliminate. There also are people who advise completely quitting salt.
Let us try to debunk myths and misinformation, and find the truth.
As usual, let’s start the discussion with refreshing our general knowledge about salt.
The thing called salt
The chemical that we consume as salt is made up of sodium chloride, a compound of Sodium and Chlorine. It is a fairly stable compound and found in abundance on the earth. Since the seas constantly receive it from rivers, most salt is found dissolved in seawater. There are some salt-water lakes and salt mines too from which salt is commercially extracted.
In raw sea salt, there are many trace chemicals of potassium, calcium, etc and many impurities. So, for consumption, it has to be cleaned. These days, salt is refined by heating at a high temperature and washing with chemical solutions. Rock salt (salt mined from the earth) has many more mineral compounds, many of which are useful but some can be harmful too.
In India, salt is commonly sold in these forms:
- Raw salt: This salt is made from sea/ lake water, and is not refined. It is usually sold loose. Such salt is mostly used in chemical industries and ice cream factories, and animal feed. Being the least expensive of all available salts, some of it is also consumed by poor people, and its use in food preparations by some restaurants and street food sellers cannot be ruled out.
- Refined common salt: This is the most common salt, mostly sold in packets. As iodization of salt is mandatory in India, this type of salt contains some iodine compounds. In more expensive varieties of common salt, anti-caking compounds are added to avoid lumping due to humidity. Some other chemicals may also be added for giving it a more powdery feel.
- Low-sodium salt: In this salt, potassium chloride is mixed, ranging from 15 to 30 percent. Since this reduces the overall Sodium content and also provides Potassium to the body, this salt is marketed as a healthy salt.
- Rock salt: This comes from mines mostly found in Pakistan. It gets its name Sendha namak from the river Indus (Sindhu). A few salt mines are also found in India. Rock salt is formed due to crystallisation of saline water under the ground over thousands of years. Its crystals are of white or slightly orange, pink or red colour. The salt is found as deposits of stand-alone crystals of fingernail size or big stones made out of thousands of such crystals. The crystals of rock salt are usually clean of impurities and have compounds of calcium, potassium, and many trace minerals. In some samples, as many as eighty such chemicals have been found, and it is also reported that salts of some mines have harmful elements such as lead.
- Black salt: This is not a naturally-occurring salt but is prepared by melting raw salt with some herbs, wood and soda. In the most popular traditional method, dry harad and bahera berries, babul bark, wood and soda are put in earthen pots, the mouths of these pots are sealed, and they are fired in kilns for about 24 hours. When cooled, the pots yield a crystalline mass of black salt. Though called black salt, the salt is dark purple, and turns light purple when ground. It gets its pungent smell due to chemical reduction of sulphates naturally found in the salt into sulphides.
- There are many other types of ‘special’ salts available in high-end markets; some of these are imported and some are made by mixing other ingredients with the salt. In many parts of India, there is also a tradition of making such salt at home. These include jeera salt, pudina salt, chilli salt, pepper salt, and so on.
What does salt do in our bodies?
Sodium is one of the main elements/ ions needed in a number of biochemical and neural activities in our bodies, including:
- Regulating the amount of water in and around cells
- Regulating blood pressure
- Helping in transmission of nerve signals
- Supporting the functioning of adrenal gland
- Helping in digestion
In some of these functions, Sodium works along with Potassium, and, therefore, there must be a fine balance between these two elements.
A deficiency of Sodium would hamper these activities that can lead to dizziness, blackouts, fatigue, headaches, nausea and lethargy. A severe deficiency can even result in coma and death. We will further discuss it in the latter part of the article.
On the other hand, it is mostly the excess of Sodium that makes us ill. It leads to retention of water in the organs and blood, leading in turn to swelling, increase in blood pressure and heart problems. It also affects the working of kidneys. It is found that excess of Sodium is also associated with stroke, stomach cancer, left ventricular hypertrophy (thickening of heart muscle) and osteoporosis.
Many natural foods and drinks contain Sodium, and yet an active and healthy adult needs to consume some salt to supply this essential element to the body, but only some. Experts advise taking no more than one (levelled) teaspoon of salt in a day. Those who sweat or urinate a lot may need this much salt but not others. People suffering from kidney issues and high blood pressure are prescribed no more than two-thirds of a levelled teaspoon of salt per day.
It is found that the ‘modern’ lifestyle is greatly responsible for high salt intake. Processed foods contain not only salt (sodium chloride) but also many sodium salts that are added as preservatives and taste enhancers. Snacks, fast-foods and street foods also contain high quantities of salt. Even foods that do not taste salty or are sweet in taste, such as bread and cakes, contain salt. People who have to regularly eat such foods need to take less salt in other food items.
Which salt is the best?
Before examining the main types of salts available in India based on facts, let us look at the claims made in various media, especially video-sharing platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. If you search for expressions such as “benefits of … salt” on Google, you will find bizarre arguments, claims and advice on salt.
Sendha namak is said to be the purest salt, laden with innumerable health benefits. In a detailed article in a popular Indian newspaper, 84 such benefits are listed, claiming that it lowers blood pressure and improves heart health, soothes joints, reduces obesity, cures diseases of mouth and throat, improves metabolism, brings glow to hair and skin, etc. On YouTube, there are numerous videos claiming huge health benefits from this salt, and some of them quote Ayurvedic scriptures to support their claims. Not only do they advise replacing iodized salt with sendha namak but encourage its usage much more than the maximum limit prescribed by health authorities. Black salt is also claimed to cure many diseases that sendha namak is supposed to cure: heart problems, weight loss, disturbed blood pressure, etc. In addition, it is supposed to do miracles in many types of digestive problems, and is also said to be good in diabetes and inflammatory diseases. Some even advise taking black salt dissolved in water first thing in the morning.
On the other hand, many people have written and made videos vilifying iodized salt. One popular YouTuber in Hindi has even claimed that iodized salt causes infertility in males and the Indian government is promoting this salt for population control. Many articles and videos spread the rumour that iodized salt has been banned in many countries.
Let’s come back to finding the best among the main types of salts available in India.
- Sendha namak or rock salt. It is a fact that the crystals of this salt are devoid of dust and other insoluble impurities. However, as it is handled in very unhygienic conditions, there is a fair chance that the salt that we get in the market does not retain its pristine purity.
It is also a fact that this salt contains many elements that are good for human health. However, their types and quantities vary greatly. In addition, these useful elements are not in the proportion required by our bodies. As said earlier, some sendha namak samples have been found to contain high quantities of undesirable elements/ chemicals such as lead.
The health benefits of sendha namak are highly exaggerated and some are outlandish. Some benefits may accrue from its dissolved elements but the harms from its consumption beyond the prescribed limits far outweigh the likely benefits. Since its major constituent is sodium chloride, it harms the body the same way as other salts do (when consumed in higher than required quantities).
Those who use Ayurveda to support the supposed benefits of sendha namak, do so mostly out of context. It is no denying that, as Ayurveda says, this salt is much purer than common salt when extracted from remote mines and handled hygienically- and it must have been much purer in ancient times when mines were present in unsullied and unpolluted locations. If it was a constituent of many Ayurvedic medicines, that too makes sense due to the vital role of salt in our metabolism. However, Ayurveda does not promote indiscriminate use of sendha namak for daily use or advises self-medication for treating serious diseases.
- Kala namak or black salt. Having been fired at very high temperatures, this salt is bound to have a number of harmful chemicals that form from breaking down of organic compounds found in wood, etc. This is highly likely, but I haven’t come across definitive research on this.
It is a fact that black salt enhances the taste and flavour of food. Thus, it helps in digestion. However, its digestive properties are often exaggerated. Claims of its being effective in high blood pressure, heart ailments, diabetes, obesity, etc are not supported by research and seem to be based on hearsay or have been invented to exploit human gullibility.
- Iodized salt. It is a fact that iodine deficiency is a world-wide health issue and providing iodine through salt is an effective health intervention to deal with iodine deficiency. So, many governments, including India, have made iodization of edible salt compulsory.
However, there are valid concerns relating to compulsory consumption of iodized salt in populations that do not suffer from iodine deficiency. Regular use of iodized salt by people getting adequate amount of iodine from other sources can lead to iodine toxicity. There is also the question of people being denied the right to choose the type of salt they like to consume. It is also argued that the poor need to consume this type of salt more than others due to their nutrient-deficient diets, but they are the ones who tend to buy un-iodized salt as they find the iodized one unaffordable.
All things considered, iodized salt is good for most people, especially those living in land-locked regions. Iodine is especially important for pregnant women and infants. Regular use of iodized salt does not result in toxicity in most individuals, and when overall salt intake is kept within prescribed limits, the chance of iodine toxicity is further reduced.
- Low-sodium salt. Companies selling this salt promote it as a healthy salt and for this, they use the fallacy that potassium in the salt helps in maintaining a desirable Sodium-Potassium balance in the body. Though humans need Potassium for many biochemical activities, the amount in which it is found in low sodium salt can lead to its excess over time. Moreover, people who think that low-sodium salt is rather harmless tend to consume this salt more than they would use the normal salt.
- Free-flowing salt. These days, anti-caking agents are mixed in edible salt sold in packets, especially in table salt. This is done to avoid the salt developing lumps due to humidity. These chemicals are considered safe for humans. Some companies use ferrocyanides as anti-caking agents, and because these chemicals are closely related to potassium cyanide, one of the deadliest poisons, we encounter claims on social media that such salt can cause great harm to our health. However, this is not true, and ferrocyanide anti-caking agents are as safe as other such chemicals.
We can, thus, conclude that no salt is good when taken in more than the prescribed limits. Sendha namak, depending upon the mines from where extracted, can supply some useful minerals but that cannot be a reason to consume this salt as medicine or tonic. Back salt is good for digestion, but should be consumed in moderation. Iodized salt is better than non-iodized salt except when, due to food habits or diseases, there is a chance of iodine toxicity, which is very rare.
Should we avoid salt altogether?
Some health advisors recommend quitting salt for good, arguing that there is enough salt present in the natural, unsalted food that we eat (grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, meat and eggs), and that our bodies do not need any extra salt. However, unless recommended by a qualified doctor, quitting salt altogether can lead to severe complications. Since Sodium is very important for many biological activities inside our bodies, these functions can get impaired. Quitting salt can be life-threatening to people who do a lot of physical activity, and live in hot and humid conditions. Actress Sridevi is reported to have suffered blackouts on film sets due to low Sodium since she had not been consuming salt for a long time. Her husband has stated, quoting medical reports, that extreme Sodium deficiency was also the cause of her death.
The final pinch of salt
The takeaway, if you like to say so, is- take no more than a levelled teaspoon of salt in a day. Take the exaggerated claims about salt and also the advice to completely abandon it, with a pinch of salt!
A video in Hindi on the same subject is available on YouTube: कौन सा नमक खाएं? It can be watched below or on YouTube:
*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink