I became very interested in the differences in salt when my dear friend Amelia gave me an assortment of sea salts for my birthday (check out her informative nutrition blog.) Of course, the look of the salts immediately attracts me: Stunning pink Himalayan, black volcanic, and grey fleur de sel sea salt crystals make my plate of roasted vegetables look a little more gorgeous. Their taste compared to the table variety is undoubtedly different, too—a little less salty, more complex and flavorful, and extremely well-rounded—enough that you could actually crunch on a virgin flake for an enjoyable zing, something you would never want to do with table salt (unless you’re totally desperate after bad tequila.) Needless to say, it only took one interlude with the gourmet sea-salts to get me hooked. I cook with it, I garnish with it—heck, after a day of skiing I could see myself sneaking away to bathe with it! Noting the upgrade I experienced in my food-making, I am quite intrigued by what other benefits this beautiful rock might have and how different it actually is from table salt. A little on what I dug-up:
WHAT IS SALT?
Salt is an ionic mineral composed of predominately sodium and chloride (NaCl). In its most natural form, salt is found as an unadulterated crystal and is sold as “rock salt” or “halite.” For eating, it comes in 3 major forms: table, kosher, and sea.
- TABLE SALT: What you usually find in the salt shaker at a restaurant, table salt is the source of 95% of NaCl consumed by Americans. Most table salt is fortified with iodine, a standard practice since the early 1900’s as an effort to avoid iodine deficiency and goiter.
- KOSHER SALT: Kosher cooks originally used this as a functional salt to draw blood quickly out from a butcher’s meat. Usually left in its un-iodized form, kosher salt is considered a step less processed than table salt.
- SEA SALT: Existing with pink, black, or grey undertones, sea salt is usually the least refined of edible salts. Often harvested by hand (like fleur-de-sel), sea salts retain the trace minerals natural to rock salt that the other two types work hard to eliminate. These minerals include sulfate, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
HOW ARE SALTS MADE?
All edible salts are required by the FDA to contain greater than 97.5% NaCl, so the fact that sea salts taste less salty probably has nothing to do with it having less salt, and more to do with how differently it’s processed. Salt processing occurs in 3 ways:
- DEEP SHAFT MINING: Like mining for any other mineral, deep shaft salt mining involves extracting large crystal deposits from naturally formed ancient sea beds. This is how most rock salt is acquired.
- SOLUTION MINING: This process involves wells erected over man-made salt beds in the sea, where within, fresh water is mixed with the salt to make a brine. The brine is then pumped to a plant where it is heated (often up to 1200F) and evaporated repeatedly until virtually all the trace minerals are eradicated. Most commonly, these salts are then bleached, to gain that attractive white color we have all come to look for in salt, and mixed with anti-caking agents. This is how most table and kosher salt is made, although kosher salt is sometimes left unbleached and less refined. The majority of table salt comes from China (what aren’t they the leading producer on??!! Oh yes! Artisanal Kombucha…)
- SOLAR EVAPORATION: A process that hasn’t changed for thousands of years, solar evaporation is how most sea salts are made and it lets the sun do the evaporating. Salt is harvested (either by man or machine) from salt lakes or seawater about once a year, during low tides, high sun, and little rainfall. Gourmet and often expensive sea salts do very little to the flake once it’s harvested, and the natural minerals in that geography will influence the color of its salt.
SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE:
WHERE IT’S FROM:
This really only matters for the sea salts, because only those contain the added minerals found from the environments from which they are harvested. A pink color comes from Calcium, Magnesium, Copper, Potassium, and Iron. Black is from sulfur, charcoal, and lava.
HOW MUCH IT’S PROCESSED:
Along the spectrum of processing, table salt is processed the most and large rocks of sea salt are the least, with kosher in the middle. Within each category there is variability in processing—for example, some salts sold as sea salt in grocery stores are just as processed as kosher salts. The best way to tell the difference is by the look of it—the more unique and colorful each crystal/flake, likely the less processed it is. The more uniform and white it is, the more processed.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear in the literature whether your salt choice makes any difference to your health. This of course doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference—it just means Western science hasn’t found one yet if there is one. For that reason, the Mayo Clinic and American Heart Association still stand strong with their recommendation that regardless of the salt you choose, make it 1500-2300 mg/day max.
On the other hand, Eastern and holistic medicine sees mineral and sea salts as an entirely different product than table salt, and highlights the numerous benefits to sea salt. Probably the most touted reason by them to choose the sea variety is that sea salt provides 80+ essential minerals in naturally occurring balances to one’s body, an impressive number next to the 2 minerals table salt will offer. Also, naturopaths warn against the damage done to table salt during processing, specifically high heat, chemical evaporation, and bleaching.
Like with almost everything I write about, the decision is yours when it comes to salt. I guess you’d have to ask yourself–what sounds better to you? Judging by the title of the blog, I think you know what choice I’ve made…
Daina Slekys Trout, MS, MPH is a Nutritionist and co-founder of Health-Ade kombucha, in Los Angeles, CA. EMAIL Daina your health questions and she’ll be happy to help! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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