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The Healthiest Salt

By 3 6

Sodium is a necessary nutrient. It is a naturally occurring element in most foods. In the form of a salt, it is a preservative and flavoring agent. Our bodies need it to survive, but it also can cause problems. We only need 200-500mg per day [1] and the typical U.S. diet has more than 3500mg of sodium. Too much can lead to water retention and swelling of the extremities. It can also keep water in the circulatory system and lead to higher blood pressures.

Many people claim that specialty salts are a healthier alternative. All commonly used cooking salts are primarily the chemical compound sodium chloride. What makes those salts special and do those differences make them a healthier option? Let’s compare six specific specialty types with what you would find in your dining room shaker. I will use the measurement of 1 teaspoon as the basis of the comparison. All salts varieties fall into two classes based on their source, mined and sea.

Salt Crystals

Salt Crystals, by Mark Schellhase, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 

Mined Salts

One teaspoon of table salt weighs 6 grams, but only 40% of that weight is sodium. [5] That teaspoon contains about 2325 mg (milligrams) of sodium. Ancient underground dry lakes contain large salt deposits. Processing removes all impurities after mining. Compounds added back including anti-caking agents and iodine for thyroid health. This results in every teaspoon of salt tasting the same and has no other trace minerals in any helpful amount.

A teaspoon of Kosher weighs 3 grams and has about 1150mg of sodium. It is very coarse. The larger crystals take more space and do not fit as tightly together. Like table salt, this has all impurities removed, but does not have anti-caking agents or iodine added. [2] The large grains make it easy to work with in the kitchen if you only need to add a pinch to the finished dish.

The mines that produce Himalayan Pink are in Pakistan. Like the previous types, these crystals are larger than table salt. The sodium level per teaspoon is less than in table salt, but by weight is nearly the same. Himalayan pink salt contains common rust which creates the pinkish hue. Rust is iron oxide, which adds some iron to the salt. Additionally, this salt contains trace amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, and many other elements. [2]

Open Pan Salt Production in Bo Kluea

Open Pan Salt Production in Bo Kluea, by Takeaway, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sea Salts

Sea water is the source of the many types of sea salt. Boiling the sea water in a controlled environment rapidly evaporates the water. Sodium chloride and other naturally occurring mineral compounds are the end product. Since sea water contains more dissolved minerals that just sodium, these products will have trace elements that may have helpful effects. These added minerals may change the flavor or color of the product. [3] The darker the color, the greater the amount of impurities that are in the product. However, if the sea water contains polluting chemicals, the resulting product will also contain those contaminants. [2] Like kosher, it is less finely ground than the standard table variety. The larger crystals take more space than table salt. A teaspoon has about 1200mg of sodium.

Celtic gray sea salt (sel gris) is one specific type. Salt pans made from clay, basalt, or concrete fill with salt water. The salt crystals form during the natural evaporation of sea water. While evaporating, they stick to the surface of the pan. During the harvest, the crystals pick up compounds from the pan, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and others. This results in a gray coloration, and it also changes the percentage of sodium to 34%. [4] Harvest happens before the salt is completely dry. Usually, about 15% of the weight is water. Therefore, by volume or by weight, this option has less sodium.

There are two types of black salt. Black lava (also known as Hawaiian black) uses water from around the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. Industrial and sewerage pollutants are not in the waters off the island. [7] The water evaporates slowly, which allows crystals time to incorporate other naturally occurring minerals. Commonly, the resulting product is 84% sodium and 16% other minerals. The final step is to combine the salt with activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is a form of carbon with microscopic pores that traps any consumed chemicals before absorption. [6]

Black Indian starts as the Himalayan variety.  Spices, herbs, and the seeds of the harad fruits need extremely high temperatures to create the proper flavors. Those seeds give a distinct sulfur aroma when used in cooking. Some people compare the aroma to that of cooked egg yolks. [8] This is a good finishing salt on savory dishes or used in vegan dishes to give the aroma of eggs.

Either black variety will have less sodium per teaspoon than other types because of the added ingredients. The added compounds make an accurate measurement of the sodium level difficult.

The Bottom Line

To a very large degree, "salt" is "salt." Some varieties contain trace minerals but whether or not they give added benefit is unknown. If you are trying to follow a low sodium diet, your best option is to not salt your food while cooking. Then choose a large-crystal specialty salt to season immediately before serving. 

Type 

Benefits

Problems

Table 

The most sodium per teaspoon

Adds necessary iodine

No concerns about polluting contaminants (mined from prehistoric dried salt lakes.)

Easy to consume too much sodium

Additives are used to prevent clumping.

Refined to remove impurities.

The least expensive form

Kosher 

No concerns about polluting contaminants (mined from prehistoric dried salt lakes.)

No additives

No iodine.

Refined to remove impurities

Large crystals are easy to work with while cooking.

Sea 

Contains variable amounts of necessary trace elements

If the sea water was polluted the resulting salt will contain the same contaminants.

Celtic Gray (Sel Gris)

May contain variable amounts of necessary trace elements

If the sea water was polluted the resulting product will contain the same contaminants.

Himalayan Pink 

Adds trace iron and minerals which may add a unique flavor

No concerns about polluting contaminants (mined from prehistoric dried salt lakes.)

No evidence that the trace minerals are beneficial and some studies suggest that toxic minerals are also present (in the same trace and likely inconsequential amounts.)

Hawaiian Black 

Contains many naturally occurring elements

The charcoal may absorb the added elements before the body can use them.

Black Indian 

Contains many naturally occurring elements

 

Has a sulfurous aroma when used in cooking.

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Comments

Jan 5, 2016 10:02am
HLesley
Interesting. I knew that sea salt contained additional trace elements, but hadn't thoiught about the possibility of pollution.

When I was in Kauai I was given a gift of locally produced traditional sea salt which was white but contained traces of the red volcanic Kauai soil.
Jan 5, 2016 10:13am
TrevorLaRene
How did that salt taste? I think that would make for a nice finishing salt on pale foods. And thanks, I am glad that I was able to give you new information.
Jan 5, 2016 10:23am
HLesley
Like most sea salt, it seems to be a tad more "salty" than regular salt, and doesn't taste like red dirt at all.

An interesting bit of trivia: Traditionally, Kauaian sea salt which contained traces of red from the soil was considered to be the best quality, and preferred to plain white salt. The Kauians gave some to Captain Cook as a gift and he despised it because to him it seemed contaminated. This was probably the first of a series of cultural misunderstandings which eventually led to him being killed by the natives.
Jan 12, 2016 7:30am
Maggie_Bish
I didn't realize salt can have a high chance of contamination especially since sometimes you may not know where they source it from. Very enlightening.
Jan 12, 2016 7:51pm
M_G_P
A very interesting read. I follow the line of thought that the healthiest salt for me is the salt on somebody else's food. That has no ill effects on my health and well being !
Feb 8, 2016 1:36am
LeighGoessl
I too hadn't thought of the pollutants in sea water remaining. Good read, thanks
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Bibliography

  1. "Dietary Salt." IFT Scientific Status Summary of Sodium. 26/12/2015 <Web >
  2. "Types of salt: Himalayan vs Kosher vs Regular vs Sea Salt." Authority Nutrition. 26/12/2015 <Web >
  3. Katherine Zeratsky "What's the Difference Between Sea Salt and Table Salt." Healthy Lifestyle: Nutrition and Eating. 27/12/2015 <Web >
  4. Loren Cordain "Celtic Sea Salt (Sel Gris): Not Even a Pinch Paleo." The Paleo Diet. 27/12/2015 <Web >
  5. Tracy Miller "Is sea salt healthier than table salt?." Daily News. 27/12/2015 <Web >
  6. "Activated Charcoal." WebMD. 27/12/2015 <Web >
  7. "Hawaiian Black Lava Salt or Red Algeae Sea Salt." Sea Salt, Hawaiian. 27/12/2015 <Web >
  8. "Everything You Need to Know About Black Salt." One Green Planet. 27/12/2015 <Web >

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