Friday, June 08, 2012

Salt of the earth

As creatures that came from the sea, it's no surprise we need salt in our diet. The question is: How much?

Before I get to the medical debate, let me say that I have a vested interest in the outcome.

You may recall from previous posts that I am an anosmiac. Someone who suffers from anosmia. No sense of smell.

Born that way. A dead nose. When it comes to food and drink, the only sensations I have are those on the tongue: sweet, sour, bitter, salty.

Salt! Love it. My idea of the perfect food is a bacon and anchovy pizza. With a bag of sea-salt potato chips on the side.

Trouble is, I have tinnitus in one ear, and salt exacerbates the condition. So I settle for the anchovies without the bacon. And I read Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, which can be read, if you are a sentimentalist like me, as a nostalgic longing for our oceanic origins. In any case, Kurlansky does a pretty good job of making salt a major player in civilization. The chemist Pierre Laszlo also has another good book on salt and civilization.

Salt was the first thing I tasted after mothers milk. In the Catholic rite of baptism, sacred salt, properly blessed and exorcised, is placed on the infant's tongue, in preparation for the Eucharistic meal to come.

So how much salt is good for us?

You don't want to be stranded in a lifeboat with nothing to drink but seawater. And if you run a marathon on a hot, humid day you may need a salt supplement.

Not too much and not too little.

Exactly how much salt is good for us seems to be a rather contentious issue, which is odd for something so universal in the human diet. In a recent New York Times article, science writer Gary Taubes wades into the issue and…well, pretty much comes to the conclusion that the experts aren't all that sure just how much salt is good for us. Certainly sodium plays a vital role in the proper functioning of the body, including the nervous system.

Which leaves me up the creek. Is the tremor my right hand related to a deficiency of sodium caused by my restriction of salt because of my tinnitus? Who knows?

But here's something I do know. There are about 10 million grains of salt in a one pound box of Morton's salt. Once, years ago when I was writing The Soul of the Night, I counted out one hundred grains and weighed them on a microbalance. Why? Because it was my habit in those days to push back the desks and use of box of salt to make a model of the Milky Way Galaxy on the classroom floor. One box makes an impressive galaxy, but it's not numerically accurate. How many stars in the Milky Way Galaxy? As many stars as there are grains in 10,000 one-pound boxes of salt!

Just enough. Not too many, not too few.