Himalayan pink salt. Celtic sea salt. Pure sea salt. Kosher salt. Old school iodized salt. Salt used to just be salt, now it has its own shelf at the grocery store. Small batch, large crystals. There are more choices than ever before, and like many foods we eat on a daily basis it is hard to know what the best decision is for our long term health. Let’s take a look at the different options and explore some of the (crazy) health claims related to these products. By the time you are done reading you will understand the different types of salt on the market and be confident in your decision the next time you need to purchase some salt.
What is Salt?
Salt is a mineral composed of two elements bound together; sodium and chloride. We cannot eat pure sodium, it has to be bound to something. When combined with chloride, it becomes salt.
Once we consume salt in any form, whether added from a shaker or as a natural part of our foods, our bodies split this molecule apart into the two basic elements which are absorbed into our bloodstream. They are then used for many important functions in our bodies. Not important today.
What is helpful to understand is that when you see sodium content on a nutrition facts label like the one below, that is showing you the sodium portion of the sodium chloride (salt) in that food.
There is an equal number of chloride molecules in that same food but because chloride is not linked with health outcomes in the same way in which sodium is tied to high blood pressure, it is not on the food label. I find many people are confused by this. An easy way to remember the difference:
It is sodium in your body and salt in the shaker. One level teaspoon of table salt contains all the sodium you should eat in a day, approximately 2300 milligrams (mg).
The above is helpful to understand because the form of salt does not matter; chemically they are all the same thing. Salt is still salt. And it all comes from the same starting place; ocean water. Why are there so many different varieties available at the store?
What is Table Salt?
Table salt originates from salt deposits, remnants of old sea beds that long ago dried up. It is mined and processed down to remove any impurities. It is then combined with an anti-caking agent that keeps it from sticking together (salt without this additive will congeal or stick together, especially when it’s humid) and then iodized, or supplemented with iodine.
The iodization of salt started back in the 1920’s. Many people across a large area of the country were developing a medical condition called goiter caused by iodine deficiency. This happened mostly in landlocked areas across the upper Midwest because people living there didn’t have access to seafood (a major source of iodine). Iodine was added to salt as a supplement and the goiter problem largely went away.
Table salt is mainly sodium chloride with small amounts of added anti-caking agent and supplemental iodine (1).
What is Sea Salt?
The difference between sea salt and table salt is that sea salt is generally made from existing ocean water or ponds of salty water. Table salt is generally mined from evaporated ancient sea beds. Evaporating existing water leaves behind more trace minerals that would otherwise be removed during the purification process.
Health Claims Made About Sea Salt
There are three important health claims related to sea salt I want to discuss. Then I will briefly review a couple of the more prominent sea salts on the market today before I wrap things up.
Claim 1 – Trace Minerals
The first health claim I want to discuss relates to the trace minerals in sea salt. I have seen a few different numbers but generally the claims state there are 80 or more trace minerals in sea salt, all of which would be removed during processing to create table salt. Which is true.
This claim just sounds so perfect doesn’t it? All of these minerals must be helping our bodies in some way. This is the best analysis I could find that shows the actual levels of a handful of these minerals in a particular brand of sea salt. The amounts are so small some would even call them trace amounts.
These elements are not unique to salt, all are commonly found in other foods we consume and usually in much higher amounts. While it sounds more natural, these trace minerals contribute next to nothing to our health.
They are not necessarily harmful, there just simply is not a large enough quantity of them to meaningfully help our bodies. For example, we need about 4,000 mg of potassium per day for general health. Many of us do not get enough in our diets because we do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. One full teaspoon of sea salt has 10.8 mg of potassium, less than 0.5% of our daily needs. That same teaspoon would provide all of our sodium for the day.
Claim 2 – Better for Our Health
The next health claim I keep seeing is that sea salt is actually better for your health overall than table salt. I did some searching on PubMed for any research articles showing that sea salt is healthier for you. I could not find a single one.
The more I looked into this the more amazed I became. It seems like a lot of people are just doing a Google search, finding some health benefits of sea salt and then stating them on their blog as fact. With links to Amazon products so they can then make money.
A few of the claims I found include that table salt is dehydrating but sea salt keeps us hydrated. Or that these magical trace minerals are preventing muscle cramps, improving digestion, and regulating blood pressure. Many of the health benefits attributed to meeting our daily mineral needs like potassium and magnesium are being touted as benefits of sea salt, even though as we just discussed these minerals are present in tiny amounts.
Claim 3 – Less Sodium
The third health claim actually does have some merit. This one is that different varieties of sea salt have less sodium than conventional table salt. Some salts, like kosher salt (2) for example have larger crystals, table salt is usually composed of smaller fine crystals. Sea salt is available in both fine crystals and course larger crystals.
It would make sense that a teaspoon of larger crystals would not pack as tightly and have less sodium then a teaspoon of finely packed crystals. Additionally all of these different varieties of sea salt with their trace minerals and differing water content do have slightly different amounts of sodium per teaspoon.
When you combine these facts together, it is true that some varieties of sea salt have less sodium compared to a like amount of table salt. This website actually does an excellent breakdown and found that Celtic sea salt has 18% less sodium per teaspoon than basic table salt.
What is Celtic Sea Salt?
There are a several niche varieties of sea salt available. One of the more prominent is the Celtic sea salt brand. Their light grey sea salt is created from ocean water (the Atlantic ocean) gathered in a particular area in the northern part of France that collects in small shallow clay pools.
Their website provides a great story, explains the how their salts are created, and links to an analysis (FAQ #7) of each type of salt they sell. Companies know that when we connect emotionally with their products we tend to become repeat customers. Celtic sea salt has an excellent marketing team.
What is Pink Himalayan Salt?
This is another niche variety of salt. This one is actually more similar to table salt in that it is mined from ancient dried sea beds in the southern Himalayan mountains. There is a slightly higher iron content in salt mined from this region giving it a pink or reddish color.
Because it comes from dried sea beds Pink Himalayan salt is marketed as healthier then sea salt (and of course table salt) because there was no pollution in ancient oceans like there is today. I cannot resist linking to this article. They would have you believe that Himalayan salt will basically come over and tuck you into bed at night and seems to be better for your health than almost all fruits and vegetables.
In truth, part of the reason Himalayan salt is more expensive seems to be that there is more marketing involved, so the price is higher to cover these costs.
From a nutritional standpoint it is no different than regular sea salt.
The Final Word
Though there are many varieties of salt now available at the grocery store, we can confidently conclude that salt is still salt. There are some crazy health claims attributed to the added minerals found in sea salt which are removed during processing to create table salt, but we now understand that those minerals are not there in high enough quantities to do what is being promised.
Most of the salt we eat does not actually come from a salt shaker, it is an ingredient in processed food. Estimates suggest that only 5 to 10% of the salt we consume daily is added to food by us. So while the sodium content of different types of salt may vary it does not matter as much when we are using less than 1/8th of a teaspoon per day of it.
Using my example from earlier, this would be an extra 1.25 mg of potassium in our daily diets. This applies to supplemental iodine too, we are not consuming all that much of it because most processed foods use NON-iodized table salt.
Is it worth your money to buy any of these specialty salts? If you find you enjoy the flavor of one salt more than another, or you feel better about the wholeness of the trace minerals included in sea salt, it is not a bad thing to invest in a bottle of sea salt as long as you use it sparingly on your foods. Just do so knowing that you will have to tuck yourself in at night, and that you probably will not see any of the promised benefits if you just add Pink Himalayan salt to a highly processed diet.
Notes for Those Who Want to Nerd Out
(1) We need about 150 micrograms of iodine daily for general health. It is particularly important for the production of thyroid hormones which regulate our metabolism. About one half teaspoon of iodized salt will meet our daily iodine requirements.
As I just mentioned above most of the salt we consume on a daily basis does not come from a salt shaker, it is an ingredient in processed foods. Many food companies do not use iodized salt in their ingredients, so processed foods contribute to our sodium intake, not our iodine intake.
If we plan to rely on iodized salt we would need MORE sodium just to meet our daily iodine needs. Not a great strategy. Food is a better option. Fish, shellfish, sushi (yum) and seaweed are great iodine sources. As are dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese. If you eat a balanced diet you are probably meeting your daily iodine needs.
Milk is actually a great source of iodine, one cup provides about 50% of our daily requirements, as does one container of yogurt. This is weird which is why it is part of the notes at the bottom for people who want to geek out with me.
Iodine would not normally be part of cow’s milk however dairy cow feed is often supplemented with iodine. Also, again disclaimer that this is bizarre, but cow teats are cleaned with an iodine based solution prior to milking and this again increases milk iodine content. What you do with this information is up to you. And if you are really interested and still want more, read this article. Just remember that we get iodine from other sources besides iodized salt.
(2) Kosher salt is weird. Any salt can technically be kosher because this type of salt is all about the intended use. Kosher salt’s purpose is to kosher meats which involves removing the blood from the meat. The salt crystal needs to be a particular larger size in order to accomplish this, hence the existence of kosher salt. Otherwise there is nothing special or unique about it.