The Truth About Sodium and Fermented Foods

The Truth About Sodium and Fermented Foods

Posted by Chelsea Miller on

For decades, we've been told all salt is bad. So we've opted for low-sodium snacks, tried a low sodium diet, and steered clear of anything with too much salt.

If you're like us, you love fermented foods and want to keep your gut healthy, but you may be cautious of the sodium content of foods like pickles and kimchi.

At Olive My Pickle, we're here to bust the myth that all salt is bad salt and help you make informed decisions on the food you eat. Instead of trying to track down low sodium fermented foods (spoiler alert: they don't exist) let's take a look at what sodium actually is, why you need it, and why some research has told us to steer clear of it.

We'll explore how salt and sodium are healthy and vital minerals for your body to function and why "eat less salt" isn't necessarily the answer.

wooden spoon with sea salt

The Basics

What is sodium? 

Sodium is a mineral found in many foods.

Like calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and potassium, sodium is an electrolyte, meaning that it creates an electrically charged ion when dissolved in fluids like blood. Our bodies need electrolytes to facilitate nerve impulses and regulate body functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, brain activity, and blood pressure.

It seems pretty important, right?

Sodium plays a vital role in the body and is necessary for many different functions.

What Sodium Does 

Among other things, sodium helps to: 

  • Maintain normal blood pressure

  • Conducts nerve impulses in your brain and nervous system 

  • Contracts and relaxes muscles 

  • Maintain the proper balance of water and minerals 

  • Transport nutrients through your gut

Sodium isn't optional. It's vital to your overall health and wellbeing and the proper functioning of your body.

Salt shaker with iodized table salt

Is salt the same as sodium? 

Most table salts are made from sodium chloride. So, salt used when preparing or flavoring foods usually contains sodium. Many healthcare professionals use the words salt and sodium interchangeably. That's why when you see low sodium foods, you generally think, 'less salt.'

As we said, our products do contain sodium. We don't consider our products low-sodium fermented foods, but we believe salt is nothing to fear!

Sources of Sodium

Not all salt is created equal. In fact, there are some pretty big distinctions.

Salt shaker spilled out on table

Table salt (sodium chloride)

This is the most commonly consumed type of salt in our diets. We use it to season our food, enhance the flavor, and enhance the shelf life of many packaged foods.

Most table salt is highly processed. The product of a chemical and high-temperature processing that removes macro and trace minerals, table salt also contains anti-caking agents to keep it dry, such as aluminum compounds. Processing removes the natural iodine, so potassium iodine (ie 'iodized salt) is added back it at potentially toxically high levels. This can destabilize the iodide compounds, turning the salt a purplish color: a bleaching agent is then introduced to restore its pure white color. (Nourishing Traditions, Fallon 1999).

High mineral sea salt (sodium chloride + macro minerals + trace minerals)

High quality sea salt by contrast is minimally processed, far less so than table salt and it contains trace minerals that add color and flavor.

High mineral sea salt contains only about ~80% sodium chloride; the remaining percentage is comprised of macro minerals, particularly sodium, potassium and magnesium. Trace minerals such as iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt and selenium are also present in high mineral sea salt. 

The macro minerals sodium, potassium and magnesium are electrically charged and known as electrolytes. They have added benefits of keeping you hydrated, rejuvenating skin, regulating blood pressure, balancing water levels in the body, reducing fluid retention, and improving digestion.

High mineral sea salt is the optimal salt to use, and it's perfect for making fermented vegetables. It's the kind of salt we use at Olive My Pickle.

 

Sodium found in processed foods

Most of the sodium that Americans consume comes from processed foods.

Sodium is added to many processed foods for any of the following reasons:

  • for a salty flavor
  • to enhance the sweetness in sugary items
  • to improve overall taste
  • to increase the shelf life
  • to help prevent the growth of bacteria
  • to help products retain moisture
  • to stabilize texture

Types of sodium used as preserving agents in processed foods include sodium bicarbonate, monosodium glutamate, sodium benzoate, sodium saccharin and sodium nitrate. These are highly concentrated sodiums that create shelf stability over long periods of time while attempting to maintain flavor; they are powerful chemicals which is why they drive up the sodium levels of processed foods.

What happens when you don't get enough salt?

Do you ever wonder why athletes drink electrolyte drinks? Well, remember how sodium is an electrolyte?

You lose sodium every day through sweat and urination. You can also drive your sodium levels down by drinking too much water and diluting the concentration of sodium in your body. 

Without sodium, you can begin to experience muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. In extreme cases, sodium deficiency can cause shock, coma, and death. Learn more about the important role of electrolytes in our article Why is Hydration Important for Your Gut Health.

My sodium story…

“I went to my functional doctor and told him that I was waking up throughout the night with intense thirst. I’d wake up every hour on the hour with a parched mouth. No amount of increased water throughout the day seemed to help. My doctor told me that it was likely mineral deficiency.

‘Water runs down rocks from the top of mountains, and that’s what gives it its minerals. When your body wakes you up to reach for your water, it's probably reaching for minerals,’ he told me.

He recommended that I remineralize my water with high mineral sodium drops and told me to start practicing what I preach by drinking more pickle juice, LOL. I started doing both and I haven’t woke up thirsty in the night since.”

⁠—Charlotte, Co Founder Olive My Pickle

Now that you have a better understanding of what sodium actually is and why we need it, you're probably asking yourself why, for decades, we've been told that salt is the enemy and we need to avoid it at all costs to stay healthy.

Well, let's break it down…

4 spoons holding 4 different kinds of salt

The War on Sodium 

You probably learned in health class years ago, or maybe from a healthcare provider, or maybe even a tv commercial, that sodium is bad, particularly for heart health.

Let's dive a little deeper and see what the science actually has to say.

This 'low-sodium' phenomenon comes largely from observational data that reports higher sodium intakes are linked to higher blood pressure (hypertension) in certain populations.

High blood pressure can lead to heart disease - that part is a fact. 

Research scientist Lewis Dahl discovered that rats with certain genes would develop high blood pressure at high salt intakes.

He also found a link between sodium and hypertension in humans.

But, again, this data was observational. He couldn't quite understand why many individuals on high salt diets did not have high blood pressure. 

In fact, there are several studies linking higher salt intake to less hypertension and a lower risk of death from stroke or heart attack. 

It was Dahl's findings that helped to justify the 1980 US Dietary Guidelines that encouraged the public to "avoid too much sodium."

Today, the USDA recommends capping sodium at 2.3 grams per day to reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease. 

The American Heart Association (AHA) is even more strict on salt, encouraging you to stay under 1.5 grams per day. 

For reference, the average American consumes about 3.4 grams of sodium per day. 

This information probably aligns with what you've heard before, but there's a flip side…

wooden spoon full of salt

What the Science Says 

Many studies show that salt has the ability to increase blood pressure. This isn't all that surprising - high volumes of sodium can increase your blood volume, which would increase your blood pressure. 

On the other hand, one international study published in 1988 looked at sodium and blood pressure in over 10,000 people across 52 regions of the world.

Researchers observed no link between sodium intake and high blood pressure. 

In 2017, researchers analyzed 2,632 people with normal blood pressure consuming either low (under 2.5 grams) or high (over 2.5 grams) sodium intakes.

In this study, the HIGH sodium group has LOWER blood pressure than those on a low sodium diet.

a wooden spoon full of salt

So, more sodium doesn't always mean higher blood pressure?

Let's look at research from the American Medical Association. They followed 4,729 heart disease patients over several years, measuring their sodium excretion to identify sodium intake. 

By the end of the study, 2,057 of the patients had died from a stroke, heart attack, and other cardiac-related deaths. 

They charted the lowest risk of death with about 5 grams of sodium per day, with lower sodium consumption with a higher risk of death. 

More recent research reviewed clinical trials on a low sodium diet for treating heart failure. They found no food evidence to support low-sodium diets. 

In conclusion, this data shows that low-sodium diets don't improve heart health.

On the other hand, low sodium diets could be doing more harm than good. While more research is needed to nail down the truth about sodium, the recommended amount of sodium intake is still pretty low, considering this mineral is essential for a healthy body. 

Bowls of various kinds of salt

So, does this mean we can load up on salty snacks and OVER CONSUME sodium?

Probably not the best idea.  Everything in moderation is a principal that applies to most things. 

Avoiding processed foods is always a good idea, regardless of their sodium content. But avoiding things like fermented foods because they contain sodium, when they offer a variety of other health benefits is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Low sodium fermented foods don't exist

Simply put, low sodium fermented foods just don't exist. A minimum salinity level is required for a viable fermentation process to occur and is necessary for creating the lactic acid bacteria found in probiotic rich foods. Consuming fermented foods has many benefits, that far outweigh the risk of sodium. A healthier gut biome? Yes, please!

Packages of Olive My Pickle fermented foods on a kitchen counter

Sodium found in fermented foods

At Olive My Pickle, we specialize in a fermentation process called lactic acid fermentation or simple fermentation. This process uses a salt water brine to preserve vegetables. It's much different than traditional pickling, which uses vinegar, sugar, and/or heat canning methods to "cook" the pickles. A fermented pickle is not cooked, instead is raw and unpasteurized, alive, and teeming with good bacteria. 

The type of pickles you may get at the grocery store, or maybe even health food stores, or eat at a deli along with your sandwich are high in sodium, often sugar-laden, and contain additives. 

Is fermented food low sodium? No, but they do contain the type of sodium that's beneficial to your body and aids in maintaining gut health. Remember - the right kind of salt is nothing to fear.

 

Olive My Pickle 

At Olive My Pickle, we make caring for your gut simple. We know real fermented foods can be hard to find, which is why we deliver tasty, fermented foods right to your door.

We offer many fermented foods such as pickles, kraut, kimchi, olives, fermented vegetables, and brine drinks to help decrease inflammation and improve overall microbial diversity.

Visit our shop to explore our unique fermented foods and start optimizing your gut health today!

 

How to Eat Fermented Foods For Gut Health

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Olive My Pickle

Founded in 2010, Olive My Pickle began as a farmer’s market business in Jacksonville, Florida. Specializing in fermented and probiotic foods, the company’s product line has over 35 varieties of pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, olives, vegetables and brines that ship nationwide.


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The content on this website is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultations with healthcare professionals. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider(s) with any questions you have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen.