When it comes to matters of health, salt has got bad press. It's that cheap condiment and hidden food flavouring with the hidden health risks. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it can strain your heart and blood pressure, bringing that fateful day a little closer. Studies indicate it might also increase your risk of brittle bones and other ailments.
But some experts argue that salt could be just what we need for healing, health and longevity. Modern salt, they agree, is unhealthy. But common table salt has almost nothing in common with traditional salt, say the salt connoisseurs. Just look at the rose-coloured crystals of Himalayan rock salt, or the grey texture of Celtic salt – both pride themselves on traditional harvesting, avoiding heat treatment or refining methods – and you know you're getting something special, not least that when you taste them, they actually have flavour. And unlike the sodium chloride you find on most kitchen tables, unrefined rock salt contains more than 84 different minerals.
"These mineral salts are identical to the elements of which our bodies have been built and were originally found in the primal ocean from where life originated," argues Dr Barbara Hendel, researcher and co-author of Water & Salt, The Essence of Life. "We have salty tears and salty perspiration. The chemical and mineral composition of our blood and body fluids are similar to sea water. From the beginning of life, as unborn babies, we are encased in a sack of salty fluid."
Historically, these mineral salts were the commodities that trade routes and cities such as Saltzberg grew up around. Once known as "white gold", salt was, and still is, essential for virtually all biological processes. Without mineral salts, says Dr Hendel, there would be no movement, memory or thought and your heart wouldn't beat.
"In water, salt dissolves into mineral ions," explains Dr Hendel. "These conduct electrical nerve impulses that drive muscle movement and thought processes. Just the simple act of drinking a glass of water requires millions of instructions that come from mineral ions. They're also needed to balance PH levels in the body."
Mineral salts, she says, are healthy because they give your body the variety of mineral ions needed to balance its functions, remain healthy and heal. These healing properties have long been recognised in central Europe. At Wieliczka in Poland, a hospital has been carved in a salt mountain. Asthmatics and patients with lung disease and allergies find that breathing air in the saline underground chambers helps improve symptoms in 90 per cent of cases.
Dr Hendel believes too few minerals, rather than too much salt, may be to blame for health problems. It's a view that is echoed by other academics such as David McCarron, of Oregon Health Sciences University in the US.
He says salt has always been part of the human diet, but what has changed is the mineral content of our food. Instead of eating food high in minerals, such as nuts, fruit and vegetables, people are filling themselves up with "mineral empty" processed food and fizzy drinks.
Due to modern farming methods, fruit and vegetables are much lower in minerals than they once were. Meanwhile, table salt is stripped of all minerals save for sodium and chloride. These changes, he believes, are responsible for the current prevalence of high blood pressure.
Nutritionist Patrick Holford goes one step further. He claims that high-sodium table salt has more to account for than just high blood pressure and heart disease and can actually create mineral imbalances that lead to health problems. "Minerals work together and need to be balanced," he explains. "For example, potassium and magnesium works with sodium to regulate water balance and nerve and muscle impulses. The more sodium you eat, the more potassium and magnesium you need. Few of us eat enough of these, yet we eat high amounts of sodium in salt. This leads to potassium and magnesium deficiency, where muscles become tight, nerves become over stimulated and you feel more anxious."
As magnesium is involved in maintaining bone density and hormone balance, low levels may compromise bone strength and lead to premenstrual problems. That's where swapping table salt for mineral-rich salt can make a difference.
"A lot of people say salt is bad, but bad salt is bad," says Amanda Nelson, founder of The Natural Salt Seller. "If you put a fish in table salt solution, it will die. Good salt, on the other hand, can be wondrous."
But can you have too much of a good salt? Current guidelines on salt consumption are to eat no more than 6g daily. However, most of us eat 10g of salt a day. Nelson suggests lowering your salt intake to 6g, whatever form of salt you eat.
Holford agrees. "Take care not to use too much salt of any sort," he says. "A large amount of the salt we eat comes from processed food, and it's the unhealthy sodium-rich type. So cut down on processed food as much as possible."
How it can heal
PMS: Mineral-rich salts can help ease PMS in two ways. The muscle-relaxing effects of magnesium combined with potassium, which helps the body get rid of excess water, can ease water retention and relieve muscular tension.
JOINT PROBLEMS: Minerals have an alkalising effect on the body. Natural health practitioners such as Louise Hay have observed that this has an anti-inflammatory effect, easing painful conditions such as arthritis.
BACK PAIN: Whether you eat or bathe in them, mineral-rich salts tend to relax. This is largely due to magnesium, which is needed for muscles to relax. Low levels of magnesium are associated with muscle cramps. Replacing table salt with a good mineral salt could help alleviate these.
BONE STRENGTH: Unrefined rock salts are rich in minerals needed for bone strength. Apart from calcium, bones use phosphorus, magnesium and other minerals as building materials.
Salts that are good for you
HIMALAYAN CRYSTAL SALT: Himalayan crystal salt contains 84 minerals, all needed by the human body. The rose-coloured crystals are claimed to help digestion, strengthen bones, ease arthritis and relax the nervous and muscular system.
For information, go to www.himalayancrystalsalt.co.uk; tel: 01303 248238; costs £6.99 for 500g
CELTIC SEA SALT: Celtic salt is collected from sea shores around Brittany and dried in the sun and wind. It is grey and moist, reflecting the mineral content and capacity to hold water, and is credited with health benefits such as lowering blood pressure.
For information go to www.naturalsaltseller.co.uk, tel: 01235 838624; costs £7.99 for 8oz
SOLO LOW SODIUM SALT: SOLO is an Icelandic salt containing 60 per cent less sodium than table salt and significant amounts of magnesium and potassium. A study in the British Medical Journal found it lowered blood pressure. Available at Morrisons and health food shops.
For information, go to: www.soloseasalt.com; costs 99p for 250g
EPSOM BATH SALTS: Eating too much sodium, combined with too few vegetables leaves us deficient in magnesium, which relaxes muscles. Epsom Bath Salts are rich in magnesium and other minerals which are absorbed across the skin while soaking in a hot bath. Available from chemists nationwide.
For information go to: www.epsomsaltcouncil.org