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Which Kind of Salt is Best?

September 16, 2013

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Salt has gotten a bad rap in recent decades. Since the rise of the standard American diet, many people consume way too much salt, often without even knowing it. Processed and packaged foods are loaded with hidden sodium, and though the usual suspects like canned soup and deli meats are the worst offenders, you might be surprised by the high sodium content of cereal, bread, and condiments. High salt consumption is generally regarded as unhealthy and has been associated with an increase in hypertension, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and stomach cancer.

Yet this much-maligned mineral is vital to the human body, regulating fluid balance and the functioning of nervous system. Salt has been a coveted food source since ancient civilizations, and along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and umami, saltiness is one of the basic tastes that many people crave. As long as you enjoy a primarily whole foods diet and haven’t been advised by your doctor to cut down on sodium, salt in moderation can add great flavor and even nutrition to a healthy diet.

Not all salts are created equal, and it’s worth considering the pros and cons of each option. So next time you’re in the kitchen, which kind of salt should you use?

Refined table salt: The most widely used form, table salt is mostly composed of sodium chloride and undergoes an intense purification process that removes minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium, which are regarded as impurities. After chemical refining, bleaching, and re-crystallization, the salt is then fortified with anticaking additives and iodine, and sometimes fluoride, iron, and even folic acid.

While some people object to refined salt as being a highly processed substance, others argue that its additives are essential to addressing public health concerns, especially in the developing world. For example, iodized table salt has significantly reduced the incidence of goiter and thyroid problems worldwide since it was first introduced in the 1920s. People who eat a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet probably get enough iodine through their food choices alone.

Kosher salt: Chemically identical to refined table salt, kosher salt has a much larger grain and was traditionally used for salt-curing meat. Some people prefer kosher salt to table salt because they find it gives more flavor for less salt when sprinkled on top of food.

Celtic sea salt: Harvested from evaporation ponds of fresh seawater, Celtic sea salt is an unrefined, natural salt and is grayish in appearance. Many health enthusiasts prefer Celtic sea salt because unlike table salt, it is unprocessed, contains no additives, and has low levels of many different minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese. Some people believe these trace elements help maintain optimal electrolyte levels in the body. Many foodies also think that sea salt is superior in taste and texture to regular table salt.

Himalayan salt: Mined from prehistoric ocean beds in the mountains of Pakistan, Himalayan salt is often pink or red in color, owing its hue to iron oxide.  Similar to Celtic sea salt, many people choose Himalayan salt because it has remained untouched for over 250 million years and contains nutritious trace elements. Critics argue that the mineral levels are so minute that you’d have to eat excessive (and unhealthy) amounts of Himalayan salt to enjoy any nutritional benefit.

Black lava salt: Harvested on the tiny Hawaiian island of Molokai, black lava salt is not naturally black and contains no lava; instead, it is unrefined sea salt that is combined with activated charcoal, which is believed to be detoxifying agent. As more of a novelty item, black lava salt is mostly used as a decorative condiment.

Low-sodium salt substitutes: At the other end of the spectrum are reduced-sodium or no-sodium salts. These highly processed foods are made from potassium chloride, which tastes similar to sodium chloride but has a bitter aftertaste, especially when cooked. While most people can tolerate extra potassium, it can be problematic for people with diabetes or kidney disease or those who take certain medications. Check with your doctor.

Which kind of salt do you prefer?