Salt is salt, right? Not if you ask foodies or chefs. Specialty stores boast an amazing array of culinary salts. There’s everything from the usual granular product to coarse grinds, sea salts identified by location such as French or Hawaiian, those visually differentiated by color, and some flavored varieties such as smoked salt.
What’s the deal with all these specialty salts? Is any one healthier for you than another? Here’s the scoop.
Table Salt. This is what you most commonly find on store shelves, restaurant tables and in the little packets handed out at fast-food eateries. Common table salt is mined from underground deposits. It’s processed to remove minerals that may cause undesirable flavors, pulverized, and then mixed with an anti-caking agent to make it easier to pour.
These agents might be manmade, such as sodium aluminosilicate or sodium ferrocyanide, or they might be natural such as calcium carbonate. Iodized table salt contains iodine. This mineral was first added to salt nearly a century ago to prevent the iodine-deficiency disease called goiter. Iodine is also found in seafoods.
Kosher Salt. Coarse in appearance and crunchy in texture, kosher salt comes either from underground mines or from sea water. Kosher salt’s name derives from its use in making kosher meats. It usually contains no additives such as anticaking agents and isn’t fortified with iodine. Because kosher salt is ‘bulkier’ than the more finely grained table salt, it technically contains less sodium per teaspoon. The difference isn’t much, though. Table salt contains 590 milligrams of sodium per quarter teaspoon while kosher salt provides 500 milligrams.
Sea Salt. Like the name implies, sea salt is made from evaporated ocean or lake water. No anti-caking agents are added to sea salt, hence the reason for it clumping in the shaker in a humid environment. What makes for such a wide variety of sea salts on the market are the type and amount of trace minerals left behind, depending on the original water source.
Some health-conscious consumers think sea salt is best because it is unprocessed and thus retains trace amounts of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc. In reality, though these minerals may give these salts a delicious pink, red or grey hue and may impart a nice flavor, the amount of minerals doesn’t really put a drop in the bucket of daily dietary needs.
Smoked salt has been trendy lately. In fact, 56 percent of chef’s participating in the National Restaurant Association’s 2013 ‘What’s Hot’ survey called flavored salts such as smoked salt, a hot trend. Good quality smoked salt has been actually smoked with specialty woods, while poor quality (cheaper) types are flavored with an artificial smoke flavoring. Smoked salt is available in grinds from fine to coarse.
Kosher, sea and smoked salts have as much or nearly as much sodium as table salt. They aren’t a good replacement for someone who wants to or needs to cut down on sodium for health reasons. Excessive sodium intake has been linked to a higher risk for high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
However, there is good news for salt lovers in the form of a report from the U.S. Institute of Medicine released in May. After calling for a reduction in sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day and more recently as low as 1,500 mg (the average person eats between 4,000 to 6,000 mg daily), the IOM reviewed new research and suggests that too low of a sodium intake, or less than 2,300 mg, may not be beneficial at all.
One of these studies, conducted by Canadian researchers in 2011, showed that the risk of cardiovascular disease in nearly 29,000 55-year-old-plus subjects with high blood pressure increased significantly for those who consumed more than 7,000 mg of sodium and less than 3,000 mg daily. The IOM didn’t re-issue a specific recommendation for sodium intake, but it seems the bottom line is moderation.
Interestingly, it’s not salt added at the table, but processed foods that provide much more sodium in our diets. According to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 types of food provide more than 40 percent of dietary sodium. In order of most to least, these are: bread and rolls, cured meats, pizza, chicken, soups, sandwiches, cheese, pasta mixed dishes, mixed meat dishes such as meatloaf, and salty snack foods.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.