What’s in Your Food? Salt Packets

I have had several moments in the last few months where I have been surprised to learn about some of items in the foods we consume so I am creating a new blog series called, What’s in Your Food? I will highlight a variety of foods whose contents may just blow your mind (and not in a good way.)

This month, we are diving into the ingredients in commonly-used salt packets. Yes, you read that correctly: salt packets often contain ingredients, plural.

My first realization about this happened in a place that also surprised me: Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods does some great things for small farmers as well as the health of Americans (albeit expensively) and makes the following claim on their website:

“We don’t sell just anything. The products we sell must meet our rigorous standards. From basic ingredients to farm animal welfare, seafood sustainability, body care, cleaning products and more, trust us to do the research so you can shop with peace of mind.” [1] 

I appreciate these standards and hold similar values so, when given the choice, I would rather support them than a restaurant that will also charge me $10 for a similar salad but provide lower quality food that has been sitting out for who knows how long. So, when in the city last month and grabbing my fresh-salad-that-I-can-feel-better-about, I also picked up a few salt packets to supplement my plain olive oil dressing. I have been trying to not be on my cell phone checking my email whenever I am by myself or have downtime (see meditation blog) so I turned over the salt packet and noticed this list of ingredients: salt, sodium silicoaluminate, dextrose and potassium iodide. My mouth dropped. Firstly, I expect better from Whole Foods. Secondly, why does salt have multiple, yet alone four, ingredients? Thirdly, what are those things mixed in my salt? I’ve never heard of them so I did some research.

salt packet

Here is what I learned about each of the substances:

Sodium silicoaluminate– Frequently found in powdered foods as an anti-caking agent, sodium silicoaluminate is a synthetic combination of silicon, sodium, aluminum and oxygen. According to an article in Livestrong, sodium silicoaluminate “[I]s generally recognized as safe in foods, but limited in certain standardized foods.” [2] With regard to this product, BeFoodSmart.com advises: “The association of aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease remains inconclusive.” [3]

The Chinese government in 2014 accordingly banned the use of sodium silicoaluminate in all food products produced in the People’s Republic of China. [4]

Dextrose– Dextrose is a processed form of sugar derived from plant-based starches such as corn. Dextrose has a high glycemic index which means that it quickly enters the bloodstream however, according to Morton Salt, one of the largest and oldest salt companies in the United States, the dextrose in one salt packet is ‘dietetically insignificant’. [5]

In fact, Morton Salt was the first to add dextrose to its salt:

“In 1924 Morton became the first company to produce iodized salt for the table in order to reduce the incidence of simple goiter. Dextrose is added to stabilize the iodide. Iodine is vital to the proper functioning of the thyroid gland and the prevention of goiter.”

Thus, dextrose is a preservative and is used to ensure that the iodide does not oxidize (i.e. start to evaporate and create a sulfurous smell). Non-iodized salt is unlikely to contain dextrose.

The corn that dextrose is derived from is very likely to be genetically modified (GMO) given the prevalence of the use of GMO’s in mass-produced processed foods in the United States. While one may consume a very small amount in one salt packet (0.04%), the amount of GMOs you consume adds up if you are eating many other GMO foods: adding iodized salt to every meal, snacking on iodized-salted corn chips, eating takeout every night from a Thai restaurant that cooks their food in GMO soybean oil… [6]

Potassium iodide- As mentioned above, iodide began to be added to salt in the 1920s to ensure people had enough iodine in their diets. Iodine deficiency continues to be a global issue, according to a 2007 statement from UNICEF. [7] Iodine is necessary for thyroid function and, in addition to goiter, it can cause a variety of problems during pregnancy including miscarriage, stillbirth, or mental retardation in infants. [8] The World’s Healthiest Foods, one of my favorite websites, states that most of us do not achieve the daily requirement of 150 micrograms of iodine and few food sources can provide the amount we need. [9] A 2008 study however, showed that most of the iodized salt in the US does not meet USFDA standards of iodide content. [10]

 So what can we do?

  1. Read your salt label!
  2. Buy a little container, fill it with pure sea salt, and carry it around in your bag.
  3. Substitute salt for other condiments such as gomasio (seaweed mixed with sesame seeds), chutney, etc. or replace with salty foods, like olives or pickled vegetables.
  4. To get enough iodine, regularly eat seaweed, salmon, good quality yogurt, organic raw cow’s cheese, or eggs. Those of you who are vegetarians or vegans can get enough iodine from seaweeds and some fruits and vegetables but you will need to eat quite a bit each day or take a multivitamin with iodine in it. [11]

 

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[1] Whole Foods Market Quality Standards Statement.

[2] Norma DeVault, “What Is the Use of Sodium Aluminum Silicate in Food?,” Livestrong.com, January 28, 2015.

[3] BeFoodSmart.com. “Sodium silicoaluminate.

[4] National Health and Family Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China. “Notice on aluminum-containing food additives use adjustment by the NHFPC and four other departments. July 25, 2014.

[5] Morton Salt FAQs.

[6] For the risks associated with the consumption of GMOs, see Jeffrey M. Smith, “Doctors Warn: Avoid Eating Genetically Modified Food,Mercola.com, March 25, 2010.

[7] The Salt Institute. Iodized Salt, July 13, 2013.

[8] American Thyroid Association. Iodine Deficiency. June 4, 2012.

[9] The World’s Healthiest Foods. Iodine.

[10] Pernendu K. Dasgupta, et al. “Iodine Nutrition: Iodine Content of Iodized Salt in the United States. Environmental Science Technology. 2008. 42 (4): pp. 1315-1323.

[11] For more ways to get your iodine-intake, see The World’s Healthiest Foods article on iodine.

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