What would food be like without a little seasoning? To add flavor to food, a number of people are trading in table salt for sea salt. Even chefs in high-end restaurants are seasoning their chef-inspired dishes with sea salt due to its distinctive texture and more pronounced flavor. You’ve probably noticed that sea salt crystals are larger than the ultra-fine crystals that come out of a container of table salt.
Although the American diet is still too high in sodium, sea salt lovers perceive it to be less unhealthy than table salt – but is it? How does sea salt differ from the less expensive table salt you buy at any supermarket?
How Salt is Made
The salt you add to your food comes from two sources: brine and rock salt. Brine is salty water that comes from the ocean or pools of salt water underground. Rock salt comes from ancient oceans that evaporated millions of years ago. The United States and other countries have brine deposits and deposits of rock salt suitable for making table salt. Most of the table salt you buy at the grocery store comes from underground salt mines, whereas salt from the sea is made by evaporating sea water.
One big difference between table salt and sea salt is the processing that table salt undergoes. To give it the smooth, fine texture you’re familiar with, it’s ground and processed repeatedly. During processing, most of the natural minerals are stripped away. Plus, after salt is processed it has a tendency to stick together. To prevent this, manufacturers add anti-caking additives to table salt. They also add iodine.
In contrast, sea salt is the product left after evaporating sea water. Unlike table salt, sea salt doesn’t undergo processing and retains more minerals, including potassium, iron, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. Some people point to the potential health benefits of the extra minerals in unprocessed sea salt but the amount is so small that it’s not really significant. If it is, you’re consuming too much sea salt!
Is Sea Salt Healthier than Table Salt?
The fact that sea salt comes from the ocean and is unprocessed makes it sound like a healthier option. Is it? Well, it is and it isn’t. Sea salt is slightly higher in minerals and doesn’t have the anti-caking additives that table salt does, but since it comes from sea water, there’s also the potential for heavy metals to be in sea salt. In one study, darker colored sea salts had higher levels of minerals but also is more likely to have heavy metals, including mercury and arsenic. Whether sea salt contains heavy metals has a lot to do with where it’s harvested from. Sea salt that comes from polluted waterways will likely have some contamination.
Then there’s the issue of sodium. Although recent research suggests cutting back on sodium doesn’t reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke or premature death, a portion of the population appears to be “sodium sensitive,” meaning a high-sodium can lead to a rise in blood pressure. Also, keep in mind that some recent research suggests a low-sodium diet may actually INCREASE the risk for heart attacks and stroke and may be harmful to people with congestive heart failure.
What does this suggest? Either extreme – a very high-sodium diet and a very low one could be harmful based on the current research. Still, most people don’t eat a dangerously low-sodium diet, quite the opposite. What may be protective against stroke, based on some studies, is a diet higher in potassium, although you must have normal kidney function to safely excrete excess potassium.
Back to sea salt. The other issue with salt from the sea is it doesn’t contain iodine. Iodized table salt is the number one source of iodine in the American diet. You need about 150 mcg of iodine daily, the amount supplied by a half teaspoon of iodized table salt daily. You need at least this amount of iodine daily for healthy thyroid function, as iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones.
Before table salt was iodized, goiters (thyroid enlargement) and an underactive thyroid was much more common, which is why they started adding iodine to table salt anyway. Most people don’t eat lots of foods naturally high in iodine, like kelp, seaweed, and fish, although milk and yogurt is a decent source. So, iodized salt can help you meet your iodine requirements.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go crazy with the salt shaker. The best approach is to eat whole foods without added salt and when you do use salt, use iodized salt at least a portion of the time. Surprisingly, processed foods are NOT a good source of iodized salt, although they’re high in sodium, and sea salt contains only trace amounts of iodine.
Sea Salt and Sodium
Contrary to popular belief, sea salt is NOT lower in sodium relative to table salt. It contains roughly the same percentage of sodium by weight as table salt. So, you’re not lowering your sodium intake when you use sea salt unless you’re using less of it. On the other hand, you may not need as much sea salt to flavor food since it has a more powerful flavor. So, using sea salt COULD help reduce your overall sodium consumption.
The Bottom Line
If you enjoy the taste and texture of sea salt, enjoy it in small quantities, but if you’re not eating iodine-rich foods, you may benefit from the extra iodine in table salt. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture still recommends that the average adult limit sodium consumption to no more than 2,300 milligrams daily, which is about a teaspoon a day. Based on new research, it’s not clear whether those recommendations will change in the immediate future. An additional step you can take to potentially lower your risk for heart attack and stroke is to eat more potassium-rich foods like fruits and vegetables.
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