Not too long ago we didn’t think very much about the type of salt we used, but oh how things have changed! Now there are numerous types of salt available in the market, each one presenting itself as the very best choice.
Exactly what is salt, and how do the different types of salt vary in taste, nutrient content, and use in cooking?
What is Salt?
Salt is a combination of 40% sodium and 60% chloride, minerals that are naturally present in the ocean and in the ground. Salt is either harvested from salt mines or evaporated from salty sea water. According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension, salt was originally used to preserve meat and fish. In western societies a salt cellar was a symbol of hospitality, and Japanese sumo wrestlers sprinkle salt on the ground as part of the ceremony before a contest.
Sodium is an essential mineral, meaning that we need to get some sodium from our foods in order to foster good health. Sodium plays a role in our body’s fluid balance, sends nerve impulses, and affects muscle function. Too much sodium, however, has a negative effect on our health. Extra sodium in our bloodstream pulls water into blood vessels, increasing the volume of blood, which increases blood pressure levels.
We need about 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day for good health, but the average American consumes more than 3,200 mg per day, mostly from processed foods and meals eaten away from home. The current American Heart Association recommendation is for people to get less than 1500mg sodium per day to reduce blood pressure levels by 25% and decrease deaths from cardiovascular disease.
The Most Common Types of Salt
- Table salt is refined into small crystals that dissolve easily. During processing, any additional minerals that are naturally present in the salt are removed and often a flaking agent is added to prevent clumping. Most table salt is fortified with iodine, an essential mineral that is crucial for the production of thyroid hormones. Low levels of iodine in our diet can lead to hypothyroidism, goiter, and neurocognitive impairments.
- Kosher salt has a larger flake size than table salt and does not contain added iodine. It dissolves quickly and provides the same taste as refined salt. Since the larger flakes make it easier to pick up with our fingers, kosher salt can easily be sprinkled over foods.
- Sea salt is a broad term for salt harvested by evaporating ocean water. Sea salt is usually not as finely ground as table salt, producing a coarse crystal and more of a burst of flavor. The amount of sodium, chloride, iodine, and other minerals in sea salt varies depending on where it's produced. However, due to ocean pollution, sea salt can also contain trace amounts of heavy metals like lead that are dangerous to health.
Types of Specialty Salts
- Pink Himalayan salt is harvested from a large salt mine in Pakistan. The pink color is due to iron oxide in the salt. This salt also contains trace amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
- Grey salt is often called Celtic sea salt because it’s hand-raked from the seashore in Brittany, France where the grey clay and sand create mineral-rich crystals.
- Fleur de sel is a more expensive version of Celtic sea salt, because for every 40 kilograms (kg) of grey salt produced, only 1.5 kg of fleur de sel is harvested. It’s a light and flaky salt usually used for finishing foods. This is the salt of choice for most chefs.
- Black lava salt is an unrefined, coarse salt that originates from Hawaii where activated charcoal provides the black color.
- Red salt also comes from Hawaii, and its color stems from volcanic clay called alaea. It's higher in iron than other types of salt.
- Persian blue salt is a mineral-rich salt harvested from a salt lake in Iran. It’s a rare (and therefore expensive) type of salt.
- Smoked salts are sea salts that are smoked at low temperatures over a bed of coals which gives a smoky flavor to the salt crystals.
Sodium Content of Various Types of Salt
Most people assume that sea salt contains less sodium than table salt, but all types of salt contain about 40% sodium and 60% chloride. The difference is in the volume of salt used.
Since sea salt and kosher salt have larger crystals than table salt, by volume they contain slightly less sodium. One teaspoon of table salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium. One teaspoon of kosher salt has approximately 1920 mg of sodium. The amount of sodium in sea salt varies, and for the most accurate information you can check the Nutrition Facts Label.
Using Salt for Health
- Choose iodized table salt to be sure that you’re getting a good source of iodine, essential for a healthy thyroid.
- Even though sea salts contain small amounts of minerals, we don’t use enough sea salt for the mineral content to contribute significant amounts of minerals to our diet.
- Use the least amount of salt possible when cooking and at the table to reduce your risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC
- Pickering, T. G. (2002), The History and Politics of Salt. The Journal of Clinical Hypertension, 4: 226-228. doi:10.1111/j.1524-6175.2002.01091.x
- Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/sodium-and-salt Last reviewed 4-16-18, accessed 2-10-19
- Farquhar WB, Edwards DG, Jurkovitz CT, Weintraub WS. Dietary sodium and health: more than just blood pressure. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015;65(10):1042-50.
- Leung AM, Braverman LE, Pearce EN. History of U.S. iodine fortification and supplementation. Nutrients. 2012;4(11):1740-6. Published 2012 Nov 13. doi:10.3390/nu4111740
- Types of Salt: Himalayan vs kosher vs regular vs sea salt. Healthline. Chris Gunnars. 10-19-18. Accessed 2-5-19.
- Sea Salt vs Table Salt. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/sea-salt-vs-table-salt Last reviewed 5-25-18; accessed 2-11-19.
- EcoWatch. 9 Different Types of Salt: Which is the Healthiest? https://www.ecowatch.com/9-different-kinds-of-salt-which-is-the-healthiest-1891079937.html published 4-9-16, accessed 2-11-19.
- United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Food Database. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb accessed 2-11-19.
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.