Like fat before it, salt has become a polarizing force in the nutrition world. There are those who strongly believe high salt intake leads to disease, and others who consider the opposite to be true—with both sides wielding numerous studies to back up their views.
Consumers experience these conflicting messages too. Store shelves are stocked with low-sodium versions of everything from soup to nuts, while restaurant menus are dotted with salt-encrusted entrees, and specialty salt shops are popping up in cities across the country. So is salt bad or good for you? And does the kind of salt you use make a difference?
Salt is an essential part of our physiology. It helps maintain fluid in blood cells and is necessary for the transmission of electrical impulses between the brain, nerves and muscles. While each of us has slightly different salt needs, most people require about one gram of dietary salt daily. However, according to the Institute of Medicine, the average American consumes 10 times that much—mostly via processed food.
For those of us with normal blood pressure, salt intake does not appear to be an issue. However, if you have high blood pressure, you may be “salt sensitive,” so reducing the amount of salt you eat may help protect your health. But even that has become debatable, as the slew of conflicting data continues to accrue. For example, a recent meta analysis published in the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that reducing salt intake lowers the risk of heart attack, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. Regardless, the American Heart Association still recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams daily, or 1,500 milligrams if you're over 50, if you're black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Is sea salt superior?
Technically speaking, all salt is sea salt. Whether it’s harvested from an existing ocean or mined from an ancient seabed under the ground, the original source is the same—the sea. Also, by weight, sea salt and table salt contain the same amount of sodium chloride. Where the two forms begin to differ is in their processing. Sea salt is produced through the evaporation of seawater, which leaves behind a hefty dose of trace minerals and other nutrients depending on its water source. These minerals add flavor, color and nutrition.
Table salt on the other hand, is generally mined from underground salt deposits. It’s highly processed to render it smooth, which also eliminates the minerals. Iodine is added to most table salt, as are additives to prevent clumping. Some manufacturers even add sweeteners such as dextrose to enhance the taste. For these reasons alone, sea salt is often considered the healthier option. And while it doesn’t contain less sodium, it does often impart more flavor than table salt, meaning less goes a long way.
At the Meadow salt shop in Portland, Ore., you can find more than 100 varieties of salt—everything from simple flake sea salt to one that contains desiccated caterpillar. Below is a look at a few common varieties and some suggestions for how to best use them in your cooking.
Made from large-grain crystals, coarse salt is fairly moisture-resistant and works well in a grinder.
Uses: Perfect for grinding over soups, stews or other dishes. Can be used to form crusts on meat.
The light crystals of flake salt are made by placing seawater in open evaporating pans and allowing the sun and wind to turn it into brine. The brine is then slowly heated until pyramid-shaped crystals of salt appear.
Uses: A pinch rubbed between the fingertips and then sprinkled on steamed vegetables or fish brings out the dish’s flavor.
Fleur de sel
Considered the premier finishing salt, Fleur de sel is harvested by hand in the traditional Celtic method, by skimming the very top of salt ponds. This variety most often hails from France, though it is also produced in Portugal, where it is named Flor de sal.
Uses: Adds subtle flavor to steamed vegetables, salads and meats.
Celtic sea salt
Recognizable due to its gray or light purple color, Celtic sea salt is hand-harvested in the Brittany region of France’s Atlantic coast. Available in coarse and fine varieties, this salt is quite popular in the culinary world.
Uses: This is a great choice to keep in your salt dish, as it can be used as a finishing salt for most foods.
Hawaiian sea salt
This traditional Hawaiian table salt is red in color thanks to Alaea, a volcanic clay mineral that is added to enrich the salt’s iron content.
Uses: This salt’s earthy flavor works well for traditional Hawaiian dishes such as poke, and it lends itself nicely to pulled pork.
With a very distinctive sulfuric flavor, Kala Namak stands out among other salts. Despite having the nickname “Indian black salt,” its actual color is more pinkish-gray. This variety comes in coarse and fine grain.
Uses: Add to Indian dishes or anywhere you desire an egg-like flavor, such as in tofu scrambles.