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The Truth About Salt

March 23, 2014

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Believe it or not, seven thousand years ago, salt was money. In fact, the oldest settlement in all of Europe, the walled city of Solnitsata in what is now Bulgaria, was built exclusively for mining salt. As the ancient historian Pliny wrote in 79 CE, “In Rome, the soldier’s pay was originally salt and the word salary derives from it.” Entire empires rose and fell over salt wars. Not bad for a condiment most of us take for granted on the table.

Today, salt may not be worth as much as it used to be—it’s essentially free in restaurants—but it remains an enormous part of our lives. And despite its onetime coveted role in society, too much salt is not necessarily a good thing. More than 90 percent of Americans consume 3,400 mg or more of salt every day (the equivalent of about 1 ½ teaspoons), despite the fact that the most recent CDC guidelines recommend a daily intake of just 1,500 mg of salt per day to maintain healthy blood pressure and kidney functions. For older Americans, those with diabetes, and anyone with endocrine problems, this can cause serious problems.

The primary sources of salt in our diets are processed foods and foods cooked at restaurants. After 40 years of warnings about the dangers of high salt intake, the food industry has done nothing to restrict salt levels, largely due to the belief that salt makes everything taste better.

These days, grocery stores and gourmet shops are filled with all sorts of fancy varieties of salt, some of which tout alleged health benefits. As much as I’d like to tell you that these claims are valid and you should feel free to use that salt shaker liberally, the truth is that no salt is really any healthier than the other, and sodium intake remains an important thing to be aware of. That being said, some of these new salts are mighty tasty, and you should feel free to experiment with them in your cooking, as long as you remain aware of how much you’re using. To help ease some of the confusion, here’s a primer on the different varieties of salts available today:

Table Salt: This is the cheapest salt, and is mined from rock salt deposits in the ground. Grains are typically very small, and are made up of a combination of sodium with chloride.

Sea Salt: One step up from table salt, sea salt is collected from evaporated sea water. There is absolutely no difference nutritionally or chemically from table salt, though sea salt usually has larger, coarser grains, so the flavor can be more concentrated and noticeably crunchier.

Iodized Salt: This is the only salt variety that could potentially assert a nutritional claim. Both table and sea salt can be iodized, and many brands have been since the 1950’s. This became common practice because iodine deficiency affects almost one third of the world population today, causing mental and physical disabilities, and salt is a common and convenient delivery method for iodine. Symptoms of an iodine deficiency include enlarged thyroid, obesity, clouded thinking, and chronic fatigue. Some estimates suggest that as many as 74 percent of Americans are not getting enough iodine in their diets currently, making iodized salt a wise choice.

Kosher Salt: Kosher salt can be made from table or sea salt, but what sets it apart are the large, flat crystals, which are ideal for drawing moisture out of meats.

Colored Salts:. Black salt from India, pink from the Himalayas—these are the salts preferred by many foodies and gourmands. They bring vibrant and interesting colors to dishes, and some people swear that they can taste miniscule variations in flavor!

Gourmet Salts: Fleur de Sel, Kala Nemak, finishing salt, and many others vary only by the size, shape, and thickness of the crystals, from powdery to flakey to coarse. 

You can get creative with the salt you choose, and use different varieties to add complexity and excitement to your dishes, just be sure to keep an eye on how much you’re using. If you need inspiration for tasty alternatives to sale, try these delicious, sodium-free spices!

How do you make sure to maintain a healthy salt intake in your diet? Tell us in the comments below!