By: Annie Bell
Surely, you have heard recommendations from physicians, dietitians, health organizations, and the USDA urging Americans to cut back on sodium in efforts to lower risks associated with cardiovascular disease. At the same time, sea salt has made a prominent name for itself, being found everywhere from gourmet restaurant menus and cookbooks to supermarket shelves. Some chefs choose sea salt for its unique colors and course texture. Sea salt has become a typical ingredient in some “upscale” snack foods, following the trend for more “natural” and “minimally processed” foods. Some health-conscious individuals turn to sea salt as a way to consume important minerals, like magnesium. But is sea salt really any healthier for you than table salt?
Let’s take a look at the differences between the two to fully understand. The main differences between table salt and sea salt involve their taste, texture, and processing. The nutritional differences between the two are subtle, at best.
Sea salt is harvested by the evaporation of seawater (or water from salt water lakes), generally with very little processing. Depending on the body of water that is used to supply the salt, a variety of minerals and elements will also be left behind (beyond the obvious, sodium chloride). These minerals add flavor and color to sea salt, setting it apart from other forms of salt. The flavors, mineral-content, colors, and grain-size of sea salts vary greatly, depending on the environment from which they were harvested.
Table salt is mined from underground salt/mineral deposits. It then undergoes processing that involves heating, bleaching, the removal of impurities and trace minerals, and the addition of an anti-caking agent, giving it a fine, free flowing texture. Iodine is added to most table salt (and has been since the 1920s) as a public health measure to prevent iodine deficiency and/or goiter, though non-iodized salt is available for purchase too.
From a health standpoint, it’s important to see one very basic similarity between sea salt and table salt – the sodium content. By weight, sea salt contains the same amount of sodium as table salt. Table salt and most sea salts contain about 40% sodium, by weight. This is an important point to understand, in a nation where the typical sodium intake exceeds recommendations by almost 50%. Interestingly, in a survey conducted by the American Heart Association, 61% of respondents believe (albeit MISTAKENLY) sea salt to be a “low-sodium alternative” to table salt. Tufts University’s Health and Nutrition Newsletter recently reported on research conclusions drawn by Food Research International confirming that sea salt is “not viable” as a sodium-reduction strategy.
Some brands of sea salt may claim to have less sodium than table salt, and they may, because sea salt content varies, depending on its source. You can check the Nutrition Facts label to compare how a given sea salt compares to table salt, which has about 575 mg sodium per ¼ teaspoon. Generally speaking though, sodium content between table salt and sea salt is very similar.
As mentioned previously, sea salts tend to contain some minerals that are important to human health, like potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium; however, the mineral content is variable (depending on the source) and ultimately, they are only present in small amounts. And, remember that these minerals are plentiful in the food supply; it’s far easierto consume these minerals (and in larger amounts) from other foods, while keeping one’s sodium intake in check.
Kosher salt and Himalayan salt are types of salt that often confuse the typical consumer.
“Kosher” salt is a bit of a misnomer. While “kosher” typically refers to foods that certifiably meet the dietary requirements of Jewish law, most brands of kosher salt are actually “koshering salt”, or the type of salt that is used in the processing of meat according to regulations of Jewish law. The kosher means of meat preparation involves using a very large granule, coarse salt to remove blood from meat by osmosis. Regular, fine table salt wouldn’t work in this process, as it would simply dissolve into the blood, whereas the large course granules absorb the blood, drawing it away from the meat. From a culinary perspective, kosher salt provides a different texture (it crunches!) and mouth-feel than regular table salt, but the source and ingredients are similar to table salt (except that kosher salt is less likely to contain the anti-clumping additive).
As stated, the sodium content among different salts is about the same when measured by weight; however, the amount of sodium in kosher salt (and large, course-grain sea salt) is slightly lower than that of table salt when measured by volume. Here’s why: table salt is composed of many, tiny, regularly shaped granules that pack together tightly in a given space. Kosher salt (and large, course-grain sea salt), on the other hand, has large irregularly shaped granules, that don’t fit together so well. So when kosher salt granules are placed into a container, there is also plenty of air space. This detail is not necessarily important from a health standpoint, but is important from a culinary perspective. In a recipe using measurements by volume (like teaspoon or tablespoon) different types of salt are not interchangeable.
Himalayan salt is salt that is mined from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan. The salt’s signature pink color is likely from the presence of iron (rust). Its health benefits are touted on many a website, with claims to support weight loss, balance hormones, and detoxify one’s body, to name a few. While this minimally processed salt does contain a large variety of healthful minerals, the actual amounts of these minerals are miniscule. There is nothing in the scientific literature to support the far-fetched health claims of this salt, though its unique color and texture give it culinary appeal.
Choose a salt that you like (considering color, texture, mouth feel, flavor, and price) and use it in moderation. There are slight nutritional differences among them, but they aren’t different enough to make a dramatic or long-term effect on your overall health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to 2300 mg per day, or 1500 mg per day if you are over 51, African American, or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.