The Salty Truth

The other day I found myself standing in front of an array of gourmet sea salts, each packaged in a small plastic tub.  The labels were in different pastel colours and the font style was kinda hip looking, if you know what I mean.  Those packages were telling me that if I used sea salt, I’d be hip too, or cutting-edge, or a more “natural” cook.

Being as susceptible as the next person to advertising flattery, I picked up one, admired the pale pink crystals, and then looked at the price.  It was $5.25 for about ¼ cup of salt!  I could have used treatment for sticker shock. 

I kept checking out salt prices.  At our local bulk grocery store, I can buy table salt for $.49/lb. while sea salt is $.79/lb—1.6 times more expensive.  Online, I found a Himalayan sea salt that, on sale, was $9.85 for ¼ lb. or $39.40/lb.  Whew!  Fan me, please!

Is this stuff worth it?  Clearly, some research was in order, and I’ve spent several days online, trying to figure out what is going on.  The situation is sufficiently dire that I now need treatment for investigative shock.  I found manufacturers, advertisers, health advisors, and even some doctors making questionable claims and providing junk information.  Ouch!

So…what’s the situation?  Basically, in the nutrition battlefield, sea salt has become the white knight while table salt is the enemy.  Sea salt is “organic,” “natural,” “pure” and “healthy”; table salt is “highly refined” and “heavily processed.”  Everything beneficial that salt does for us, such as regulating fluid balance in the body and enhancing the taste of food, sea salt can do better.  Everything bad about the overuse of salt, such as contributing to hypertension, heart disease, and strokes, has been placed at table salt’s doorstep.

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, says that “It seems to be a rule of nutritionism that for every good nutrient, there must be a bad nutrient to serve as its foil, the latter a focus for our food fears and the former for our enthusiasms.” Yep, he sure got that right. 

Certainly, it benefits advertisers to put table salt in a bad light in order to make us spend more money not only to buy sea salt but also to purchase “must-haves,” such as sea salt grinders and, if you buy the salt in blocks, specialized sea salt shavers. (I kid you not!)  I suppose I should not be surprised that promoters want to mislead us. 

And I’m afraid we can be easily mislead, not because we’re ignorant or stupid, but because salt has fallen under what Pollan calls the “great Conspiracy of Scientific Complexity.”  In this conspiracy—contributed to by the food industry, government, nutritionists, and journalists—food has gone from something humans used to eat just for pleasure and sociability to something we can’t eat “without professional guidance because of widespread confusion about nutrients.”

I hope in this post to eliminate some of the confusion around salt so that both you and I can make reasonable decisions in the grocery store.  I’ve put the information I’ve gathered in a Q&A format, following the questions I asked as I researched.

Is the source of table salt and sea salt different?

All salt, whether labelled table salt or sea salt, comes from a salted body of water—namely, an ocean or salt-water lake.  Some salt makers use water or deposits from today’s oceans; others use deposits evaporated from oceans in previous geological eras.

In other words, all salt is “sea” salt.

How “natural” is sea salt vs. table salt?

Every type of salt comes from a deposit that is created when salt water evaporates.  There are two ways in which this evaporation takes place. 

The first type of evaporation is part of a geological process in which an ocean or salt-water lake dried up many millions of years ago and sediments were laid down. Sometimes this salt can be found on the surface of the earth, such as the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  Mostly, however, these salt beds are underground, and the salt that comes from them must be mined.  This type of deposit yields both table and sea salts.

The second type of evaporation is a man-made process in which manufacturers mimic nature by evaporating salt water until crystals form and then processing the salt to reach a standard of desired quality.  Table salt is made this way in salt refineries; sea salt is made this way by hand and/or with some mechanization.

In other words, table salt and sea salt are created by the same methods—both of which arise from the “natural” process of evaporation. 

 Do table and sea salts differ in composition?

All salt deposits contain the same mixture of elements.  According to Marine Science, no matter how much salt happens to be dissolved in a given drop of ocean, it is “always made up of the same types of salts and they are always in the same proportion to each other”: 85.62% sodium chloride and 14.38% other trace minerals: sulphate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, bromide, borate, strontium, and fluoride (in descending order of quantity). 

Sea salts retain the trace elements while table salt has been processed to remove trace elements and include additives (more on this below).  Deposits of salt can also include pollutants from the air, chemicals from rain that fell on the deposits, and elements from soil surrounding the water or deposits.  Both table and sea salts may require special processing to remove impurities.

In other words, sea salt and table salt share the same amount of sodium chloride, but only sea salt retains the trace elements found in saline water.

Isn’t sea salt “purer” because it doesn’t have the additives that table salt does?

This seemingly simple question turned out to be more than I bargained for.  Here goes.   

Under U.S. law, up to 2% of table salt can be additives.  These are usually an anti-clumping agent and iodine.

Anti-clumping agent: A characteristic of all salts is that they absorb water from the surrounding environment and thus clump.  Table salt manufacturers ended the clumping problem by adding an anti-caking compound, approved as non-toxic, that enables the free flow of salt.  Other foods in powder form such as tea, coffee, sugar, and milk have the same problem and also use anti-clumping compounds.

Iodine:  No salt, table or sea, in its natural state contains iodine.  This mineral was added to salt in the early 1900s when scientists discovered that an iodine deficiency in American diets was causing thyroid goiter, a mass in the neck that could press on the trachea and esophagus. This discovery led to “iodized” table salt and a significant reduction of goiters. Subsequently, lack of iodine in pregnant women was found to cause a form of mental retardation in infants called Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD).  This disorder remains a problem.  According to UNICEF (2007), “over 1 billion people in the world suffer from iodine deficiency, and 38 million babies born every year are not protected from brain damage due to IDD.”

One promoter of sea salt argues that “most Americans generally get enough iodine from their diet without iodized salt; seafood and sea-vegetables, brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale for example, all contain some iodine.”  This claim, I suggest, is up for debate as research on American diets shows that most people don’t eat enough fish or vegetables.

Now I get just as much buzz as the next nutritionally interested person when I think I’m getting a “pure” food.  But I found myself wondering if table salt is really less “pure” than sea salt because of these additives.  That led me to questions such as “What does “pure” really mean?” and “What do we want when we seek “pure” foods?”  Yep, definitely more than I bargained for.

After much musing, I’ve come to the conclusion that “pure” implies a food whose essence has not been changed by processing or additives. 

Another way to put this is that a food is “pure” when it has not been tampered with to the point that it has virtually become a “pseudo-food”—a conglomeration of chemicals added during processing, designed to make the product appeal to taste buds, to lower the cost of production, to preserve shelf life, and to increase nutrient value for the purposes of advertising. 

For example, let’s look at the ingredient list for Christie Vegetable Thin crackers. To my way of thinking, a “pure” baked product includes basic ingredients such as flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, oil, baking soda, baking powder, and other ingredients for taste and texture such as herbs, seeds, spices, extracts, coconut, chocolate, etc.

On this basis, Vegetable Thins can’t be considered “pure.” It contains 26 ingredients, many of them chemicals which don’t occur in home baking such as hydrolyzed soya and monosodium glutamate.  Moreover, Christic claims that these crackers are baked with real vegetables.  But is “dehydrated vegetable and seasoning blend” the same as real vegetables with their rich nutrients and fibers?  Not likely.

 In other words, should we consider all additives equal?  In my opinion, table salt additives do not create a pseudo-food.  Their purposes are to enable flow and improve health outcomes while the food value remains intact.

 Is sea salt “healthier” than table salt?

Our bodies require salt. Today’s problem is that our diet usually includes far more than our daily requirement: 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day or less than 1 teaspoon, whether it is table or sea salt. Sea salt, contrary to some claims, does not contain less sodium than table salt.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “By weight, sea salt and table salt contain about the same amount of sodium chloride.” 

As noted above, table salt is processed to remove trace elements while sea salts, in general, leave these in.  These minerals are indeed important in our diets, but in sea salt they exist in what the Mayo Clinic describes as “insignificant amounts.” Chances are you are getting the same minerals in greater quantities in the fruits and vegetables that you eat.

In other words, both sea salt and table salt are equally “healthy” when used in appropriate amounts. 

 So…is there a good reason to buy sea salt? 

Yes, if you’re seeking the flavours, colours, and textures provided by the different sources and processing techniques of sea salt manufacturers.  These qualities can make a difference.  A 2005 article in Salon.com, “Worth One’s Salt,” although a little dated and not inclusive of newer sea salt brands, discusses salts and includes a taste test of different salts on a variety of foods.   

Personally, I can’t see the purpose of paying a significantly higher price for sea salt for everyday use.  However, I can see doing so for a very special occasion.   

What about you?

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12 thoughts on “The Salty Truth

  1. My only comment is that ~1,500 mg is a daily recommended maximum for most of the adult population in many countries/organizations. The minimum to maintain good health is much lower. That’s trickier to set a number on, as it depends on your activity, perspiration, kidneys, etc. The IOM set the number for minimum sodium intake at 180 mg/day, and there are non-industrial societies which consume less.

    • Sometimes if individuals drastically reduce salt intake they may end up in hospital with hyponatremia (dangerously low salt levels). It’s happened, especially by those suddently put on a low sodium diet after a health scare. According to the mayo clinic (link below) ” Whichever type of salt you enjoy, do so in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams a day — or 1,500 milligrams if you’re age 51 or older, or if you are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.” If most Americans could get to 2,300 per day rather than the 3,000 plus we tend to consume, that would be worthy in and of itself. Making goals reasonable and moderate will be key in any longterm lifestyle changes, and unless one falls into the aforementioned categories there is no need to go below 1500, which in itself is a very low number, and has spurred controversy in recent years. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/sea-salt/faq-20058512

      • Yes, it would practically impossible to get to 180 mg on a Western diet (and truly unreasonable!). There is a difference between the biological minimum requirement and what people realistically do just fine eating, though, which was what I was trying to get at. Most dietary guidelines are set substantially above the biological minimum requirement for the vast majority of the population (to take in account variation in population, factors for error, etc). The majority of the shift in population salt intake will likely only come with changes in processed foods– reformulated breads, cereals, condiments, etc.

  2. That’s interesting. I never thought about what a minimum would be. And counting would be so difficult in other ways as well for most people. You’d have to divide each dish by servings and figure out how much salt per serving for everything you eat and drink. Worse than Weight Watchers 🙂

  3. Great post. I have a background in chemistry and geology so I understand a lot about the chemistry of the different salts (NaCl). I personally use kosher salt (“small, flake-like form”) when I use salt alone because of the texture. I often just use a processed product like creole/cajun seasoning or Old Bay and add the salt with the spice. I’ll pay a bit more for that, but sea salt isn’t high on my luxury list.

    • Thanks, Russel. I tend not to put much salt to anything because of my husband’s high blood pressure, and then add whatever salt I want for myself. So I keep away from salted seasonings and try to find other ways to make the food interesting. That being said, I’m hearing a lot about kosher salt so it’s on my list.

    • There is no “better” salt. Everything depends on taste and your pocketbook. I do think sea salt is something of a fad that’s being heavily promoted by manufacturers of the salts, salt grinders, and salt shavers…but that’s me.

      • There is a huge difference between salts for me and for many, and you will understand this being gluten intolerant. Having not only a gluten intolerance but, myself a severe corn intolerance, salt is a hidden source of corn in many many products and because corn ranks as number 9 on the allergen list, there is no regulation that says it has to be declared or even listed. The additives in salt that you believe are not altering the integrity of the product are crucial to me and to anyone with a corn intolerance. Dextrose, anti caking agent, cornstarch, yellow prussiate of soda are all corn derivatives which make any product that lists salt off limits to me unless it boasts pure sea salt, in which case I don’t really care how much I pay, since it is very hard to find. Even kosher salt and some sea salts use it, so pure sea salt for me is worth every cent. There are a growing number of people who are discovering a corn intolerance, especially those with a gluten intolerance since the protein structures are similar. So you might want to rethink your stance on all salts being equal. And consider getting tested for a corn intolerance. It is shocking to me how many gluten free products contain corn with as many people as I know who are intolerant of both. If anyone has gone gluten free but still has unexplained symptoms, it is worth exploring further.

      • Hi Nancy, First I want to say thanks for your two thoughtful comments. Your information about the anti-caking agent in salt really got my interest so I did some digging and came up with a list of approved anti-caking agents from Health Canada for a variety of foods. Unless I’m reading it wrong, I don’t see corn or a corn product listed as an anti-caking agent for salt.
        http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/list/1-anti-eng.php

        So I’m not sure what you mean exactly, but I do think that each person knows his/her body best and what he/she can tolerate and has to take action accordingly.

        I personally don’t have a problem with corn, my two “baddies” are gluten and oats. By mistake, I had an energy bar with oats a few months ago. It took 4 days to recover. So I certainly agree with you that anyone having symptoms even if they’re carefully staying away from gluten should keep on searching.

        Thanks again, Claire

  4. Ps. The price tag for the pink Himalayan sea salt is for the transportation of the hand harvested salt that comes down on yaks from high up in the unpolluted Himalayan mountain air and makes its way to us. As opposed to the salt mines sitting beside the Utah freeway among others I’ve passed on road trips across the US as well as the potentially polluted ocean water from whatever source it may come from. I’d say it is worth a little more, but that’s just me. And I am a consumer, I don’t sell the stuff!

  5. Watched a segment on CTV Canada AM this morning about salt and decided to do some research as I am starting an on-line course tomorrow (Food for Thought via McGill and EDX). The research lead me to your blog. Claire, you more or less come to the same conclusion as I did – not to waste my money unless it is for something special… HOWEVER, what really caught my eye was your name 😀 we are cousins in-law 😀 (I’m one of Joe’s girls)
    I will be coming back to Foodrefactionista because it is excellent, the recipes look delicious and we seem to think along the same lines when it comes to what we put in our mouths.

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