Is Salt worth its Salt?

May 24, 2017 | Food and Nutrition |

The Dirt:

Geologists call it Halite, chemists call it sodium chloride (NaCl)— the rest of us just call it salt.  Salt has a remarkable history, which dates back to the earliest civilizations. It is a vital component in the functioning of our bodies and it boasts over 14,000 known uses. You can cook, flavor or finish your food with fine, coarse or flakey salt, and select from white, grey, pink, red, black, and even blue salts.  So, what should we make of all these choices? Is there a difference in taste or nutritional quality of the different salts? Lets take a look…

You would be hard-pressed to find a household without a salt shaker today, but this wasn’t always the case! Salt used to be a very rare commodity until the industrial revolution ushered in the technological abilities to discover vast salt reserves. In fact, salt was used as a currency as valuable as gold – traded and fought over around the world.

“For millennia, salt represented wealth. Caribbean salt merchants stockpiled it in the basements of their homes. The Chinese, the Romans, the French, the Venetians, the Habsburgs, and numerous other governments taxed it to raise money for wars.” 

Salt: A World History

Salt is used in thousands of ways, from whipping up egg whites and enhancing the flavor of foods in your kitchen to the manufacture of paper, plastics, and fertilizers. Its preservative and antimicrobial effects are significant in the food processing industry, and it has an important role in the feeding of animals and plants. It is thrown over your shoulder for good luck, and is the subject of the common idioms, “worth your salt” and “salt of the earth.”

The U.S. and China dominate in world salt production, accounting for 40% of the 250 million tons of salt produced each year. Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Texas and Utah produced about 95% of the salt in the United States in 2016. In fact, the city of Detroit sits on one of the largest salt deposits in the world, and most of the salt used for de-icing our roadways is mined from an ancient seabed near Cleveland, 2,000 feet below Lake Erie!

Its not just in your salt shaker! Salt is used across many industries. Source: U.S Geological Survey, 2017

All Salt is “Sea Salt”

Whether salt is mined from ancient sea beds under the city of Detroit, the Appalachian Mountains or the Himalayan Mountains; extracted from salt domes along the Louisiana coastline; or solar evaporated from the Atlantic or Pacific oceans – all salt comes from the sea!

There are three basic technologies to produce salt:

Deep-Shaft Mining is much like mining for any other mineral. Salt exists as deposits in underground ancient sea beds, which are typically miles long and thousands of feet deep. The majority of “rock salt” (used to de-ice highways and walkways) is produced this way. Have a look at the video!

Solution Mining is where wells, similar to oil and gas wells, are set up over salt deposits and fresh water is injected to dissolve the salt. The brine is then pumped out and taken to a plant for evaporation.

Solar Evaporation is the oldest method of salt production and is dependent on warmer climates. Salt is first captured in shallow ponds, where the wind and sun evaporates the water. The salt is then harvested either by hand or by machine.

Watch this video on how salt is harvested in California:

Salt is as necessary to sustain life as water and air!

Sodium is an essential macro-mineral. It works with other electrolyte minerals, like potassium, magnesium and calcium, to balance the water levels in cells, stimulate nerve impulses and initiate muscle contractions. Humans and animals CANNOT function without sodium. Most people get the sodium they need through their regular diet, but either too much sodium or too little sodium has negative health consequences. It is a fine balance between the sodium and water in your body.

The daily recommended amount of sodium is 2,300mg, which is a teaspoon of table salt. Most Americans are taking in closer to 3,400mg per day. According to the FDA, the natural salt in some foods accounts for about 10 percent of intake, the salt shaker represents about 5-10 percent and about 75% of our total salt intake comes from processed foods and restaurant and other food service establishments. The FDA Dietary Guidelines suggests ways to monitor your salt consumption.

If you have too much salt, the extra water stored in your body raises your blood pressure and puts a strain on your heart, brain, kidneys, and arteries.  If you have too little salt then your muscles and nerves don’t function as well – and that in turn puts pressure your heart.  The best approach to your sodium intake, unless you have been otherwise instructed by your physician, is to eat a balanced, varied diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The nutritional content is the same – but salts do have different flavors…

No matter what the type of salt…

Pink salt from the Himalayan mountains
Grey salt from the coast of France
Black or red salt from Hawaii
Blue salt from Persia
Flakey sea salt from New England
Coarse salt from the Appalachian mountains

Pink Himalayan salt is a type of rock salt mined from the Punjab region of Pakistan, near the foothills of the Himalayas. (photo: Pixabay)

Fine, coarse or flakey; sea salt, or table salt, even rock salt— it is all 40% sodium and 60% chloride.

Table salt is refined and purified to remove trace minerals, clays and other natural deposits or contaminants. Compared to what is typically marketed as “sea salt”, it is uniform in shape, and often sold with added iodine and/or anti-clumping agents to provide smooth pouring.

Iodine is a trace mineral that is essential to our health. Without it there is a link to obesity, cancer, cognitive impairment, heart disease and mental health. Japanese studies have found that a diet high in iodine helps keep breast cancer and tumors at bay. But it’s most important role is to help the thyroid function properly.

Adding iodine to salt has been a simple way to defend against thyroid disfunction. Other good sources of dietary iodine include eggs, fruit, grain products, and poultry, seafood and edible seaweed.  According to the American Thyroid Association, in other parts of the world, iodine deficiency continues to be an important public health problem, with approximately 40% of the world’s population at risk for iodine deficiency.

Morton Salt Company advertising blotter, circa 1925. Source

Salt identified as ‘Sea salt’ is produced through evaporation of ocean water or water from shallow saltwater ponds. Depending on how it is harvested and processed, the crystals come in a variety of coarseness and density levels, so you will experience different textures and “crunch.”

“Whatever its appearance, all salt contains a mix of sodium and chloride. Because it is processed and refined in many different ways salt may also naturally contain small amounts of other minerals, which gives it variations in taste, texture and color.” – Mayo Clinic

Much like wine can take on the flavor of its local soil, salt can take on the flavor of its local body of water (whether above or below ground).

To get some clarification on this difference in flavor, the D2D team conducted a simple taste test of 6 different types of salt: HimalaSalt, La Baleine Sea Salt fine crystals, Diamond Kosher Salt, Grey Celtic Sea Salt, “Real Salt” fine crystals, and Morton’s iodized table salt.

The D2D salt taste test. From left to right: the saltiness of the crystals was more intense.

We were very surprised at the differences in texture and taste! The pink HimalaSalt was the mildest in salt flavor and its chunks took the longest to dissolve, the moist grey Celtic Sea Salt was also on the mild side with crunchy texture, La Baleine fine crystals tasted balanced in flavor and quickly dissolved; the Diamond Crystal Kosher on the saltier side with larger crystals, Morton Iodized was saltier and quick dissolving, and the pink-hued fine crystals of “Real Salt” were strongly salty.

So, we were wondering— with distinct differences in flavor, is there also a nutritional difference?

Sea salt and table salt have the same basic nutritional value, despite the fact that sea salt is often promoted as being healthier. Sea salt and table salt contain comparable amounts of sodium by weight. -Mayo Clinic

Marketers of colored or coarse salts will advertise that unrefined salts contain essential trace minerals that benefit health. What we have learned, however, is that what distinguishes one salt from another in color and flavor is the method of production and the amount of minerals and/or clays attached to the crystals.

No matter how it is harvested, from deep within the earth’s surface or in a sheet pan from the Atlantic ocean, salt is chemically similar: 98% sodium chloride. The less processing that occurs, the more the crystals will retain trace minerals.

In a spectral analysis of Himalayan salt, there are 88 trace minerals listed, including very important ones like potassium, magnesium and calcium, which are known to control blood pressure. But also on the list is radium, uranium and polonium, which are radioactive substances, and thallium, which is tasteless and odorless –  a very difficult to detect poison.

In a compositional analysis of Hawaiian sea salts, one of the trace minerals in black lava salt is bromide. Bromide compounds were typically used as sedatives in the 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually being withdrawn due to chronic toxicity.

Hawaiian Black Lava Sea Salt is mixed with coconut shell charcoal to achieve the sexy black color. Gourmet Foodstore

Now the amounts of these trace minerals are very small, and there is no risk of poisoning if you eat Himalayan or Hawaiian sea salt! But claims that these salts are “healthier” for you just aren’t substantiated.

And with regards to those trace minerals in your shaker of specialty sea salt, the amounts are just too small to derive any benefit.  You should not be looking to salt as a nutritional source of minerals. Salt is used as a preservative, flavor enhancer or a visual component of food display.  A healthy, balanced diet is the recipe for obtaining minerals that are beneficial to your health.

Specialty Salts are marketed as pure and “free from”…

According to Mintel Research, specialty salts have succeeded in finding shelf space because “unique ingredients and exotic locations” create consumer interest, and marketers are capitalizing on the latest “free from” health trends such as  “free from environmental contaminants”,  and “naturally free of…”

This difference in flavor, “local” origins, and “uniqueness” are, according to Mintel Research, the reason why the niche salt market will continue to grow.

A salt which is drawn from deep within the Himalayan mountains will claim an added quality of “an exceptional pure and clear environment”, free from “environmental pollutants,”  since the salt has been underground for centuries with no outside interference. Consumers are attracted to these types of products as they appeal to their concerns about pollution and its effect on health.

After thousands of years of struggle to make salt white and of even grain…people will now pay more for salts that are odd shapes and colors.

– Salt, A World History

Salt harvested from an ancient sea trapped below the Appalachian Mountains. J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works

Additionally, unique colors and textures of salts add interest, buzz, and aura of premium quality to drink and food presentation. A margarita glass rimmed with black sea salt? How exotic!  Your medium rare steak cooked on a 500-year-old, rose quartz-hued slab of salt? Of course you’d pay extra for that!

Regionally produced salts will advertise “locally harvested and processed” , which appeals to consumers who are disenchanted with commercially produced food products. According to Mintel research, provenance is important to consumers, as they can visualize the ocean, location or the local tradesman.

Salt harvested from the Marblehead Salt Company, where each harvest is a blend from 14 different locations.

Amagansett Sea Salt is by hand in small batches from Atlantic Ocean seawater near the Hamptons, Long Island, New York. Amagansett Sea Salt

But, while marketing claims can be alluring, just remember no matter what your salt, it is all 60% sodium and 40% chloride. There are no nutritional differences between salts (any amounts of trace minerals are neglible), and the differences in taste come from a salt’s provenance and processing methods.

The D2D team contacted The Salt Institute for information relating to health claims of these various specialty salts.  The  self named “Salt Guru”, Molecular Biologist Mort Satin, responded:

“As much as I would like to say that there are great nutritional difference between the salts, I cannot do so.  The only way that we can verify any differences between the various salts is through clinical trials, and such trials have not been carried out.  I suspect most of the nutritional hype on the various salts is not based on formal clinical trials published in peer-reviewed journals.  What we, of course can say, is that these various salts do add color, different tastes and overall interest to the table.  And they do have slightly different mineral compositions, but considering the amount normally consumed, I have never come across a peer-reviewed clinical study showing any reproducible benefit or harm from any of them.”

The Bottom Line:

Aside from a very colorful history and unique variations in provenance, salt is salt! What differentiates salts is the harvesting and processing methods, which yields different flavors and textures according to where it comes from. Consumer interest in unique provenance and minimally processed foods has played a large role in the growing market for specialty salts. Salt plays a vital role in the functionality of our bodies, but eating a healthy balanced diet will supply all of your sodium nutritional needs.


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