Sea salt: The “healthy” salt?


Salt – it’s my one weakness.

Ok, maybe cute baby animals, chips and salsa, and bookstores rank as highly for that title, but salt is up there.

NaCl

So when you hear the rumor that perhaps one salt is ‘healthier’ than another, it is something I felt I had to investigate. And in honor of Salt Awareness Week (Jan 27 – Feb 2), I provide this timely blog about my research on the long-toted healthy alternative, sea salt.

First of all, what is salt, anyway? Essentially, if we break it down to basic chemistry, it’s a sodium and a chlorine compound (40:60 compound ratio in a teaspoon) that when they dissolve in fluids (like water or blood), they break down into charged ion molecules called electrolytes. Sodium (Na) is one of eight essential electrolytes our body uses every day (along with potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, chloride, bicarbonate, and sulfate).

So what do we like about electrolytes? They help our bodies do a number of things like manage fluid flow in and out of cells, blood pressure/blood flow, and even keeps our blood pH at an even 7.4.

So salt isn’t bad. We need salt. But as the old saying goes, anything in excess can turn into “too much of a good thing.”

The suggested daily intake for any healthy American, says the USDA, is between 1500-2300 mg or less a day. That’s less than a teaspoon! I certainly use a lot more than that over a day’s time. In a recent project for one of my classes, I discovered I was personally averaging about 6,000 mg a day.

Oops.

Where we run into trouble isn’t just the salt shaker sitting innocuously on our dinner tables. It’s that many people depend on convenience, prepared foods (and we’re not even talking about fast food here) packed with sodium. According to www.diet.com, about 75 percent of the average American diet’s salt comes from processed foods (from the store or out at restaurants), while only about 15 percent comes from natural sources already in the separate food items themselves.

Just for a sneak peek, here are some of the saltiest prepared dishes in American restaurants. Buyer beware (and be-aware!).

And why should we be mindful about how much salt we consume? A regular diet containing an overabundance of salt can lead to high blood pressure, which bumps up your risks enormously in potentially suffering a stroke, heart attack, or kidney damage.

Over the last year and a half, I have completely cut out all processed foods. So I thought I was untouchable when it came to sodium intake. How wrong I was! That sodium count I came up with during my assignment startled me. And it got me thinking. If I’m still overshooting that mark by a few thousand milligrams, I can’t imagine what an average American eats on a daily basis.

The end result was that I still had to cut out some salt somewhere. But how?

I’d tried depending on herbs for flavor, but I still missed that tart, stinging taste of salt. My research got me to thinking about the plethora of salts out there, and wondered about the sodium content. Did they differ? Or was it simply about taste? I had heard about sea salt for ages, especially, and the rumblings about its health benefits as opposed to common table salt. So before blindly purchasing a shiny new container of sea salt, I decided to investigate these claims.

One rumor I kept hearing over and over was that there was less sodium in sea salt. According to one answer on the subject, Timothy S. Harland aka Dr. Gourmet agreed, and wrote in response that yes, “sea salt products will be lower in sodium.”

He explained that this would be on account of the difference in crystal size between the two salts.

“The [sea salt] crystals are larger and more irregular and a teaspoon is less dense,” Gourmet wrote. “A teaspoon of table salt such as good, old-fashioned Morton Salt in the round blue box weighs 6 grams. The Nutrition Facts on the box reports this as having 2,360 mg per teaspoon (the USDA database reports this as 2,325 mg in a teaspoon).

“A teaspoon of sea salt from Whole Foods, in contrast, weighs 4.8 grams. Consequently, there is less salt as well as less sodium (listed on the box as 1,680 mg per teaspoon).”

Hmm. Okay, I thought to myself. But on the other side of the argument, EHow said that, “When measured by weight, sea salt and table salt usually contain about the same amount of sodium chloride.”

I needed to find my own evidence to settle this argument once and for all. So, I went to the store and did my own comparison (regular salt on left, sea salt on right):

Nutrition of Salt

Hmmm. It would appear that the rumor of sea salt containing less “sodium” had a kernel of truth to it. But a few milligrams’ difference simply didn’t “wow” me enough as a sure-fire answer to this burning question. So, I pressed on.

I decided to break open a package of sea salt and see for myself.

But before even tasting it, there came another conundrum – iodized salt or non iodized? I discovered while examining the cover of the sea salt that it did not have iodine, as many nutrition experts suggest you buy. Was I suddenly opening myself up for any number of ailments from iodine deficiency? Well, you be the judge.

In the end, I have discovered that it wasn’t crystal size or sodium content in either of these salts: It all boiled down to taste, as it usually does for this foodie *points thumbs inward*. I found that the sea salt was simply much “saltier” tasting than your common table salt.

As Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian and representative of the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, explains it, both salts have the same amount of sodium, but its flavor is much more noticeable.

“Some people think you can add flavor with less salt with sea salt,” Lemond said. “You’re actually using less salt, so it would be less sodium because it is less salt.”

Aha! Mystery solved!

Perhaps the increase in taste does have to do with crystal size: I cannot say. But overall, I know I definitely have decreased my salting habit by about 3/4 of what it once was. I, personally, find that pretty incredible. So, while we should all try to keep our salt use down to a minimum, there will be those times we feel we need an extra dash to enjoy our meal.

My suggestion? If garlic or some other pretty zesty seasoning or salt alternative (like lemon juice) just doesn’t cut it for you, sea salt is most definitely the way to go as opposed to table salt. Just be careful: Go easy at first. You’ll be surprised just how little sea salt you need to get that salty flavor you’re looking for.

Bon appetit, everyone!

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9 thoughts on “Sea salt: The “healthy” salt?

  1. If you notice the label, they both say 1/4 tsp, but the one on the right also says 1.4g. I’d bet that 540mg vs 590mg attributes mostly to a rounding error. I’d be curious as to what contributes to the ‘flavor’ of salt (minerals, etc?)

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  2. That would indeed be an interesting thing to investigate… Hmm. 😉 Rounding, I never thought of that. Thanks for swinging by, Jay!

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  3. I hadn’t realised that sea salt was being paraded as healthier! I use it because it tastes better – and you’re probably right about that being because of the grain sizes

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  4. Multiply the volumes and weights on the labels by 4 and you get exactly what “Dr. Gourmet” said: a teaspoon of regular salt is 6g, and of sea salt is 4.8g. And his reasons for the two having different weights are sound. It’s not a rounding error.

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  5. Thanks, Shane.

    I think, when all is said and done, the confusion is just semantics about “less sodium” in either. They’re both composed of the same ratio of Na and Cl, but the larger crystals in the sea salt take up more room and essentially, fewer salt crystals fit into a measuring spoon. But I find it interesting to note nonetheless!

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  6. A little late to the party here, but wanted to note that jasonjayr is correct in his assessment of the difference in sodium levels being based on the difference in how much salt fits in 1/4 teaspoon. If you do the math (a simple ratio problem), you’ll see that if there are 590 mg in 1.5 grams, then in 1.4 g there will be 550 mg of sodium. You can duplicate what I did by setting up the problem as such: 1.5/590 = 1.4/?. To solve, cross multiply and divide. This is a perfect example of why it is so important to make sure you are measuring apples to apples when making nutritional comparisons! 🙂

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