I’ve been away from New Zealand recently and so have missed out on our main newspaper’s words of wisdom on the nutritional front for a couple of weeks. But luckily for me we’re back in time to get the latest from the NZ Herald.

First up was Friday’s recommendations of the best “real foods” from our vending machines – where clearly “real foods” is given a wide interpretation given No 2 on the list is a can of fruit juice.

And now Nikki Bezzant’s latest opinion piece warning about “another additive lurking in our food that’s possibly equally as dangerous [as sugar], or maybe even more so.” So what is this lurking danger?! Read on.

Now, if I was a typical NZ Herald reader I’d probably have been reading Nikki’s article this morning whilst eating my low fat cereal with low fat yoghurt and orange juice and I’d not be at all surprised to hear that salt is a “dangerous additive”. I’ve probably already cut down on my salt but I’ll go even lower, bemoaning the blandness of my meals but smug in the knowledge that I’m being “healthy”. And so the salt shaker is vanquished to the back of the pantry only to be brought out on special occasions – along with that other guilty pleasure – butter (which we would “know” from reading our HFG is a dangerous saturated fat).

Anyway back to the article at hand which states that salt, because of its sodium content, raises our blood pressure. And high blood pressure is one of the single biggest risk factors for stroke and heart disease; estimated to affect more than one in three men and one in four women. Now I’m not qualified medically or in nutrition but this all sounds right to me.

But what I think is wrong is that I don’t think it comes across as loud and clear as it should in this article that the problem is not so much salt as it is processed foods. Sure I know its mentioned – but instead of suggesting people eschew processed foods the article advocates people “choose the lowest sodium options” they can find from amongst the processed foods. (Although good to see the article – inadvertently perhaps – highlights bread and cereal and harborers of “hidden salt”.)

There are another two points I think are glossed over. First, the article cites WHO recommended intakes of salt at 1/2 to 1 teaspoon a day and seems to advocate for even less at 1/4 teaspoon. Second it says there’s no advantage or reason to use a “fancy” salt over table salt.

In respect of the first point: While my understanding is that most people have no reason to restrict salt to the levels recommended by various health organizations, there are a few health conditions in which lower salt consumption may be necessary, based on clinical and population data. Generally, these are people with serious health problems, particularly suboptimal kidney function, and the data supporting salt restriction in these individuals is somewhat controversial.

However, generally, I understand that there exists a range of sodium intake that likely confers the best health outcomes for most people and this is wider than the range suggested by the article. Apparently studies have found that the lowest risk of death is for sodium excretion between 4000 and 5990 milligrams per day whereas sodium excretion greater than 7000 milligrams or less than 3000 milligrams per day was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart attack and death. This lowest risk range equates to approximately two to three teaspoons of salt per day.

As to the second point being the type of salt – again my understanding differs from the view put forward: Regular table salt, is heavily processed, generally devoid of trace minerals, and commonly contains undesirable additives such as anti-caking agents like sodium silicoaluminate or sodium ferrocyanide. Therefore, generally avoiding table salt is a good idea, though care must then be taken to ensure adequate iodine intake from other sources once iodized table salt has been removed from the diet. We use a kind of sea salt that has iodine added and we also use a seaweed/salt mix. I know these are more expensive than table salt and so that not an option for all.

Given that I am not a nutritionist or medically trained professional I will leave the final word to Chris Kresser L.Ac:

“The amount of conflicting research that exists on salt is astounding. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on salt intake, and a consistent pattern has never been established for sodium’s role in a variety of negative health outcomes. At a minimum, it seems absurd that so much time, energy, and money is spent on trying to reduce the amount of salt that we eat, considering how weak the evidence is on this issue.

Ultimately, my perspective is that adding unrefined salt to a whole foods Paleo diet is perfectly healthy. By limiting grains and processed foods, the amount of sodium in your diet will already be drastically reduced as compared to the standard American diet. A bit of salt can make certain healthy foods, particularly bitter vegetables, far more palatable. Considering the evidence I believe that salt restriction for the general population is not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous.”

For more information on salt I highly recommend you check out Chris Kresser’s website and relevant posts starting with this one “Shaking Up The Salt Myth”.