Tuesday 9 February 2016

The Healthiest Salt

By TrevorLaRene

Sodium is a necessary nutrient. It is a naturally occurring element in most foods. In the form of a salt, it is a preservative and flavoring agent. Our bodies need it to survive, but it also can cause problems. We only need 200-500mg per day [1] and the typical U.S. diet has more than 3500mg of sodium. Too much can lead to water retention and swelling of the extremities. It can also keep water in the circulatory system and lead to higher blood pressures.
Many people claim that specialty salts are a healthier alternative. All commonly used cooking salts are primarily the chemical compound sodium chloride. What makes those salts special and do those differences make them a healthier option? Let’s compare six specific specialty types with what you would find in your dining room shaker. I will use the measurement of 1 teaspoon as the basis of the comparison. All salts varieties fall into two classes based on their source, mined and sea.

Salt Crystals

Salt Crystals, by Mark Schellhase, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 

Mined Salts

One teaspoon of table salt weighs 6 grams, but only 40% of that weight is sodium. [5] That teaspoon contains about 2325 mg (milligrams) of sodium. Ancient underground dry lakes contain large salt deposits. Processing removes all impurities after mining. Compounds added back including anti-caking agents and iodine for thyroid health. This results in every teaspoon of salt tasting the same and has no other trace minerals in any helpful amount.
A teaspoon of Kosher weighs 3 grams and has about 1150mg of sodium. It is very coarse. The larger crystals take more space and do not fit as tightly together. Like table salt, this has all impurities removed, but does not have anti-caking agents or iodine added. [2] The large grains make it easy to work with in the kitchen if you only need to add a pinch to the finished dish.
The mines that produce Himalayan Pink are in Pakistan. Like the previous types, these crystals are larger than table salt. The sodium level per teaspoon is less than in table salt, but by weight is nearly the same. Himalayan pink salt contains common rust which creates the pinkish hue. Rust is iron oxide, which adds some iron to the salt. Additionally, this salt contains trace amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, and many other elements. [2]
Open Pan Salt Production in Bo Kluea
Open Pan Salt Production in Bo Kluea, by Takeaway, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sea Salts

Sea water is the source of the many types of sea salt. Boiling the sea water in a controlled environment rapidly evaporates the water. Sodium chloride and other naturally occurring mineral compounds are the end product. Since sea water contains more dissolved minerals that just sodium, these products will have trace elements that may have helpful effects. These added minerals may change the flavor or color of the product. [3] The darker the color, the greater the amount of impurities that are in the product. However, if the sea water contains polluting chemicals, the resulting product will also contain those contaminants. [2] Like kosher, it is less finely ground than the standard table variety. The larger crystals take more space than table salt. A teaspoon has about 1200mg of sodium.

Celtic gray sea salt (sel gris) is one specific type. Salt pans made from clay, basalt, or concrete fill with salt water. The salt crystals form during the natural evaporation of sea water. While evaporating, they stick to the surface of the pan. During the harvest, the crystals pick up compounds from the pan, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and others. This results in a gray coloration, and it also changes the percentage of sodium to 34%. [4] Harvest happens before the salt is completely dry. Usually, about 15% of the weight is water. Therefore, by volume or by weight, this option has less sodium.

There are two types of black salt. Black lava (also known as Hawaiian black) uses water from around the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. Industrial and sewerage pollutants are not in the waters off the island. [7] The water evaporates slowly, which allows crystals time to incorporate other naturally occurring minerals. Commonly, the resulting product is 84% sodium and 16% other minerals. The final step is to combine the salt with activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is a form of carbon with microscopic pores that traps any consumed chemicals before absorption. [6]

Black Indian starts as the Himalayan variety.  Spices, herbs, and the seeds of the harad fruits need extremely high temperatures to create the proper flavors. Those seeds give a distinct sulfur aroma when used in cooking. Some people compare the aroma to that of cooked egg yolks. [8] This is a good finishing salt on savory dishes or used in vegan dishes to give the aroma of eggs.
Either black variety will have less sodium per teaspoon than other types because of the added ingredients. The added compounds make an accurate measurement of the sodium level difficult.

The Bottom Line

To a very large degree, "salt" is "salt." Some varieties contain trace minerals but whether or not they give added benefit is unknown. If you are trying to follow a low sodium diet, your best option is to not salt your food while cooking. Then choose a large-crystal specialty salt to season immediately before serving.

The most sodium per teaspoon
Adds necessary iodine
No concerns about polluting contaminants (mined from prehistoric dried salt lakes.)
Easy to consume too much sodium
Additives are used to prevent clumping.
Refined to remove impurities.
The least expensive form
No concerns about polluting contaminants (mined from prehistoric dried salt lakes.)
No additives
No iodine.
Refined to remove impurities
Large crystals are easy to work with while cooking.
Contains variable amounts of necessary trace elements
If the sea water was polluted the resulting salt will contain the same contaminants.
Celtic Gray (Sel Gris)
May contain variable amounts of necessary trace elements
If the sea water was polluted the resulting product will contain the same contaminants.
Himalayan Pink
Adds trace iron and minerals which may add a unique flavor
No concerns about polluting contaminants (mined from prehistoric dried salt lakes.)
No evidence that the trace minerals are beneficial and some studies suggest that toxic minerals are also present (in the same trace and likely inconsequential amounts.)
Hawaiian Black
Contains many naturally occurring elements
The charcoal may absorb the added elements before the body can use them.
Black Indian
Contains many naturally occurring elements

Has a sulfurous aroma when used in cooking.


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