Salt gets a bad rap, and that’s not totally fair.
“We cannot live without salt. The human body was designed to require and crave salt,” Dr. David Brownstein, author of Salt: Your Way to Health, said in an interview. “Salt is the second most common substance in our bodies.” The most common, as you likely know, is water, which makes up at least 60% of the human body.
Not all salt is created equal, however. If you’re invested in eating a healthy diet, you’ll want to make sure you’re not sabotaging that when it comes time to season your carefully chosen cuisines. The top two salt choices are sea salt and table salt, and while they’re similar in some ways, they’re also quite different.
Sea Salt vs. Table Salt
Sea salt and table salt: we all know what they are, yet determining which is healthier can feel quite challenging! Some sources vehemently claim that the two contain practically identical sets of nutrients, while others firmly state that sea salt is a healthier choice.
Since sea salt typically costs more than table salt, you may want to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth before upgrading from the most basic salt option out there. So, here’s a definitive comparison of sea salt and table salt to help you decide which type of salt is for you.
Why You Should Reconsider Table Salt
If you’ve never given much thought to the kind of salt you buy, then the shaker in your cupboard right now is almost certainly filled with table salt: the most affordable salt choice out there, and the most highly processed.
Table salt is industrially mined from underground salt deposits (also called “crude oil flake leftovers”), heated to extremely high temperatures (1,200 °F), ground into a fine powder, treated with additives called anticaking agents to prevent clumping, and sometimes even bleached to a brighter white color.
This harsh treatment strips out most of the beneficial mineral content salt naturally contains, greatly depleting the nutritional value of regular salt. “Refined salt contains no minerals and also has toxic additives from the manufacturing process—aluminum silicate and chlorine derivatives,” said Dr. David Brownstein.
As the title of his book indicates, Dr. Brownstein definitely believes salt can be good for us, as long as we stay away from the highly processed stuff. He advises thinking about it in the same manner we would natural sugars versus refined sugars; the substance itself isn’t innately bad for us, but it can be hyper-engineered into products that can be harmful. Brownstein attributes many of the unpleasant side effects we associate with salt, like bloating, to refined table salt specifically.
One reason may be that table salt contains the highest amount of sodium of all the salt varieties, since the end result of the extensive processing is basically pure sodium chloride. That gives it a higher per-granule sodium content than less refined types of salt.
Sea Salt: A Better Choice
Unlike table salt, sea salt is barely processed at all. Sea salt is created through the evaporation process of water from the ocean or saltwater lakes. When the water molecules vaporize into the air, salt crystals are left behind. You can actually see the difference: instead of tiny, uniform grains, sea salt comes in larger, more textured granules. It also comes in a range of colors, like grey, green, and even pink.
Sea salt naturally contains a whole swathe of minerals and trace elements. Western Analysis, Inc., has identified up to 75, in fact! The exact mineral profile of the sea salt you purchase will depend on its geographic point of origin. Some minerals you’ll often find in sea salt include zinc, iron, and potassium.
Sea salt also provides electrolytes and has an alkalizing effect on your body, along with many other health benefits. Adding it to your diet can help you stay hydrated, enhance nerve and muscle function, and balance your sodium-to-potassium ratios. It also increases the secretion of the digestive enzymes that break down food, meaning we’re able to absorb more of the nutrients our food contains.
There’s even some evidence of broader health effects related to the trace minerals and elements in sea salt, such as improved immune system function, boosted energy levels, decreased symptoms of adrenal disorders, fewer and less severe headaches, decreased symptoms of thyroid disorders, and lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
And while sea salt does cost more than table salt, the difference may not be as noticeable as you may think. The average cost for a 26-ounce box of table salt is $1.00, while the same amount of sea salt typically costs $3.00. You’ll get enough use from that amount of salt, and it’s unlikely the higher price will cause a pinch unless you’re dealing with a very tight budget.
The Truth About Iodine and Salt
One argument often made in favor of table salt is that it contains iodine. The truth is, sea salt contains iodine too, although in much smaller amounts than that found in iodized table salt. Furthermore, salt is not the only or the best way to meet your body’s iodine needs.
Iodine, a non-metallic mineral found most prominently in seawater as well as in soil near the sea, is absolutely vital to human health. Your thyroid requires iodine to synthesize the hormone it secretes, and an iodine deficiency can lead to poor thinking skills, slowed metabolism, weight gain, and in extreme cases, goiters and thyroid cancer.
In the early 1920s, iodine deficiency was a major health problem in the United States. A group of experts, inspired by efforts in Switzerland, got salt manufacturers to add iodine to their products. Rates of iodine deficiency subsequently plummeted. Recent national surveys show that only a small number of Americans today get too little iodine.
In addition to some kinds of salt, iodine is now frequently added to dairy products and commercially baked goods. It’s also found naturally in most seafood. And if you feel strongly about optimizing your iodine intake from salt specifically, you can even purchase iodine-enriched sea salt.
Current guidelines recommend 150 milligrams of iodine daily for adults 19 and older. If you’re pregnant, the recommendation goes up to 220 milligrams. If you’re nursing, it’s even higher at 290 milligrams.
Should You Be Worried About Your Salt Intake?
While it’s true that many individuals living in the United States take in too much sodium, most of that comes from processed foods, not from adding salt to home-cooked meals. That said, the American Heart Association recommends that you limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams a day—the amount found in slightly over 1 teaspoon of sea salt.
Too much sodium can cause health problems, such as high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. It can also eat away at the integrity of your blood vessels and pave the way to heart disease. And there’s some evidence that high levels of sodium in your blood can make you more likely to develop osteoporosis and gastric cancer.
But it would be a bad idea to try to cut out sodium altogether. We need it to maintain our bodies’ fluid balance and to help carry nutrients to our cells. And getting too little of this essential nutrient also causes blood pressure problems. According to dietary guidelines, the lower limit for sodium intake is 200 milligrams daily.
While watching your salt intake may form a part of your strategy to keep your sodium levels in the optimal range, avoiding processed foods—like fast food, frozen meals, canned goods, and prepackaged snacks and treats—should be a much bigger focus.
Even More Salt Options!
Once you branch out beyond table salt, you’ll find there’s a whole world of salt options! You can find this beloved seasoning in a spectrum of colors, including red, blue, and black. If you’re interested in exploring more salt choices, here’s a few popular options you may want to try in your salt shaker:
- Himalayan salt
- Celtic sea salt
- Fleur de sel
- Black lava salt
- ‘Alaea salt
- Persian blue salt
- Kosher salt
And, if you love salt but need to adhere to a strict low-sodium diet, don’t despair! There’s an option out there just for you: sea kelp. Kelp has a naturally salty flavor and contains health-promoting potassium, magnesium, and trace elements. Sea kelp is such an effective salt substitute, in fact, that researchers are looking at how it might be used in commercial goods. You can purchase sea kelp in most health food stores or from online retailers.