What Does “Food Processing” Mean?

My post, The Salty Truth, got a lot of responses when it was put up on Fooducate (under the title, “Table Salt vs. Sea Salt: The Truth”).  A theme that ran through some of these responses was the evil of food processing.  For example, one person said, “My personal food philosophy is that natural is ALWAYS better than processed foods in any degree or manner,” and then slammed table salt because it was processed to meet consumer demand for a white, same-size crystal, easily flowing product.

Like other writers about food (see Bettina Elias Siegel’s post on this topic), I feel uneasy about the the terms, “natural” and “processed.”  It’s easy to identify a cauliflower at the farmer’s market as “natural” and the Vegetable Thin crackers that I described in The Salty Truth as “processed” because the latter contains ingredients that have nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with appealing to consumers, preserving shelf life, and lowering the cost of production.

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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?