Is Salt Worth its Salt?

Sep 19, 2018 | Food and Nutrition

The Dirt:

There is Himalayan salt, Pink Salt, Grey Salt, Black, Salt, Blue Salt, Coarse Salt, Flakey Salt, the list goes on. What makes them different? Is there a type of salt that is more nutritious?

On a recent trip to Whole Foods, I was perplexed by the numerous options for salt. The Himalayan salt was “clean, pure, and untouched, drawn from deep in the mountains.” The labels of red, black and white coarse salts were claiming “unrefined” and “containing essential trace minerals. “

Is one type of salt better than the other? I asked my team at Dirt-to-Dinner and, while we had our salt preferences for cooking or baking, we were unsure about the nutritional differences.

Salt is salt is salt.

What we learned is whether salt comes from mines deep within the earth’s surface or in a sheet pan from the Atlantic Ocean, all salt is 98% sodium chloride, otherwise known as, SALT!

“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

What distinguishes one salt from another in color and flavor is how it is processed. Table salt is refined and purified to remove trace minerals, clays, and other natural deposits or contaminants. It is uniform in shape, often sold with added iodine, and pours smoothly.

On the other hand, a product such as Hawaiian red salt is created by evaporating white sea salt in large saltpans set into Hawaii’s red, iron-rich volcanic clay. Through the process of mixing and evaporation, this salt will assume a red hue and will also contain naturally occurring elements from the clay. (Want to know more about processing and the history of salt? Read Where does salt come from?)

Let’s look at the “trace minerals”…

Specialty salts are usually marketed as containing essential minerals, special antioxidants or some other health claim. But the reality is that there have been no replicated clinical trials to prove these salts are more nutritional than regular table salt. And, although salt is necessary to a healthy diet, you wouldn’t be reaching for the salt to get to your recommended daily allowance of minerals.

In a spectral analysis of Himalayan salt, harvested from deep within the Himalayan mountains, there are 88 trace minerals, including important minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium. But also on the list is radium, uranium, and polonium, which are radioactive substances. And there is thallium, a tasteless and odorless, difficult to detect poison!

Bromide has been detected as a trace mineral in Hawaiian black lava salt. Bromide compounds were used as sedatives in the 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually withdrawn due to chronic toxicity!

Black Lava sea salt.

The amounts of trace minerals are very, very small, measured in parts per million, 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.

Self-proclaimed “Salt Guru”, Molecular Biologist Mort Satin, responded to our questions about the nutritional differences between salts:

“As much as I would like to say that there is a 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. … What we 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.”  (“Salt Guru”, Mort Satin)

Marketers capitalize on consumer trends

According to Mintel Market Research, specialty salts are 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…”

Provenance is also important to consumers, as they can visualize the ocean, location or a local business. Regionally produced salts will advertise “locally harvested and processed”, which appeals to consumers who shun commercially produced food products.

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

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

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

Amagansett Sea Salt from the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. Amagansett Sea Salt

Is there a difference in taste?

To get some clarification on this difference in flavor, we conducted a simple test of 6 different types of salt available in grocery stores.

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 Himalayan salt was the mildest in salt flavor and its chunks took the longest to dissolve in our mouths. The grey Celtic Sea Salt was also on the mild side with crunchy texture. La Baleine fine crystals were balanced in flavor and quickly dissolved. The Diamond Crystal Kosher was 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.

The Bottom Line: 

Salt is salt. While marketing claims can be alluring, salt is always 60% sodium and 40% chloride. There are no nutritional differences between salts. Any amounts of trace minerals are negligible, and the differences in taste come from a salt’s provenance and processing methods.