What Kind of Salt is Healthiest?

Should you spend more for natural gourmet salt?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
June 1, 2010
Episode #095

When shopping for salt, you’ve got lots of options. You can buy sea salt or regular salt, finely textured or coarse; it might be white, grey, or pink; it may be kosher or iodized. Today, I’d like to talk about the differences between the different types of salt and whether any of these offer any nutritional advantages.

What’s the Difference Between Regular and Sea Salt? 

Regular table salt may come from rock salt, a natural salt deposit in the earth, or from evaporated sea water. When it’s labeled sea salt, you know it came from sea water. Once both types have been cleaned up and purified, there’s really no chemical or nutritional difference between the two. If you were to dissolve sea salt in water, it would be virtually indistinguishable from regular table salt.

The biggest difference is that sea salt can be processed in a way that produces larger crystals. The size of the crystal makes a difference in how you perceive the salt that you put on your food. Larger crystals sprinkled on a dish give a concentrated burst of saltiness and a little crunch that many people enjoy.

Sea salt can also be processed into fine crystals, just like regular table salt. Whenever you have a fine-grained salt, an anti-caking agent is usually added. These additives are harmless and keep you from having to chip the salt out of a solid block every time you use it.

Should You Buy Iodized Salt?

You can buy both regular and sea salt with or without added iodine. Iodine is a nutrient that, among other things, helps prevent mental retardation. It’s also being studied as a possible issue in ADHD.  Iodine deficiency used to be fairly common—and in third world countries, it still is. Iodized salt was proposed as an easy way to prevent iodine deficiency—and, for the most part, it has worked pretty well.

Some people don’t like iodized salt because they feel iodine adds a noticeable flavor. Others just want to keep their salt closer to nature. If you prefer not to use iodized salt, you can also get iodine in seafood and edible seaweeds. Vegetables can be a source of iodine, depending on the iodine content of the soil in which it they’re grown.  And many dairy farmers add iodine to the feed for the cows, so dairy products can be a good source of iodine. Even if you don’t use iodized salt at home, a lot of processed and prepared foods are made with iodized salt. If these foods are in your diet, they are likely to be an additional source of iodine. Many multivitamins also include iodine.

But what if you don’t use iodized salt, you never eat packaged or prepared foods, and you’re a vegan, so you don’t eat fish or dairy, and you don’t take a multivitamin. Are you at risk of iodine deficiency? Theoretically, you could be. The most common sign of iodine deficiency is an enlarged thyroid gland, or swelling of the neck. It usually reverses when iodine is added to the diet. If you have any reason to suspect iodine deficiency, check with your doctor, just to be sure.

What is Kosher Salt?

When sprinkling salt on top of a finished dish, you may find that using kosher salt gives you more flavor with less salt. For salt added during cooking, it won’t make any difference.

Chemically speaking, kosher salt is identical to table and sea salt—and has the same amount of sodium by weight. It is never iodized but may have anti-caking agents added. 

The big difference is the size and shape of the crystal. They are larger and flatter, as if you took a medium-coarse grain of salt and put it through a roller.

As with sea salt, the size and shape of the crystal make a difference in how you perceive the saltiness. Because of the increased surface area of kosher salt crystals, they dissolve more readily on your tongue. For salt added during cooking, this wouldn’t make any difference. But when sprinkling salt on top of a finished dish, you may find that using kosher salt gives you more flavor with less salt.

Along the same lines, Frito-Lay is working on reshaping the salt crystals that they sprinkle onto their potato chips in order to be able to reduce the sodium without making them taste any less salty.

What Are Gourmet Salts?

Sea water contains more than just sodium chloride, of course. Other trace minerals may also be dissolved in it and fine particles of clay may be suspended in it. These impurities are filtered out of kosher and table salt. If you don’t filter them out, those sediments and minerals will affect the appearance and flavor of the finished salt. In fact, the “impurities” found in the sea water of some regions of the world are especially prized.

Foodies have been going on an on about these fancy salts for a while now. You can buy pink, gray, green, and lavender salts from exotic locales around the world. Perhaps your palate is sensitive enough to detect the subtle fragrance of volcanic clay or French dust. Even if it’s not, it sure is fun to have multi-colored salt. (Not to mention, fashionable.) And, because they’re not as pure, unrefined sea salts are sometimes a bit lower in sodium than regular table salt.

But some companies are now claiming that the extra minerals actually make unrefined salts from the Himalayas or the Celtic Sea super nutritious. Frankly, you need to take these claims with a grain of, well, salt.

Are Gourmet Salts Healthier?

These salts do contain trace amounts of various minerals, like potassium and magnesium, as well things like strontium, fluoride and cadmium… more or less what you might get from chewing on a spoonful of dirt. There’s also the chance that you’re getting minerals you don’t really want, like mercury or arsenic.

However, we’re talking about amounts that are measured in parts per million or fractions of a percent. That might be enough to affect the color or the flavor (hopefully in a good way) but it’s not enough to offer any meaningful nutritional benefits—at least, not without consuming way too much salt! And there’s really no substantiation for the claims that these tiny amounts of minerals are somehow more usable or powerful because they are in some sort of energetically-charged form or harmonically-balanced proportions. That’s just snake-oil talk, folks.                                            

If you like the colors and flavor of these exotic sea salts and you’ve got the budget for it, have a good time. But it would be hard to justify the cost based solely on the nutritional benefits.

Should You Use Salt Alternatives?

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about how people need to reduce the amount of salt they consume. Using kosher or sea salt might save you a few milligrams of sodium here and there. But, as I discussed in a previous article, most people are consuming one and a half to two times the recommended amount of sodium. So, you might be wondering whether a sodium-free salt alternatives is a good idea.  These are made with potassium chloride, a mineral salt formed from potassium instead of sodium. Potassium chloride tastes salty, but can have a bitter or metallic aftertaste.

If you don’t mind the taste, you can replace some or all of the table salt in your recipes or salt shaker with a low-sodium salt alternative. But keep in mind that 70 to 80% of sodium comes from packaged and prepared foods, including restaurant food. If you eat out a lot or you eat a lot of processed foods—things like canned soups, sauces, and vegetables, frozen dinners, deli meats, boxed meal kits, chips, snacks, and crackers— replacing the salt in your salt shaker with potassium chloride is sort of like standing out in a driving rain storm and holding an umbrella over one knee. 

If you’re concerned about your sodium intake, start by cutting back on packaged and processed foods—which is where most of the sodium in your diet is coming from. If you do most of your own cooking using fresh whole foods, you’re probably well within the recommended limits for sodium intake. If your doctor has put you on a very low-sodium diet, of course, you may need to be even more vigilant. (And this is a good time to remind you that these tips should never take the place of medical advice from your own health care practitioner.)

In this week’s newsletter, I’ve included more tips on how to cut down on sodium. There’s also a discussion thread on salt and sodium on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page, where other readers are sharing their favorite salt-sparing tips.  For more Nutrition Diva, or to share a question or comment, you can also find me on Twitter.


All About Salt

Salt image courtesy of Shutterstock