Sea salt is often touted as a more healthful alternative to ordinary table salt. Many food products are now proclaiming the use of sea salt on their labels and health food stores have long promoted its healthful benefits. Although some of today’s food advertising concerning sea salt is in regards to it giving a better flavor to the food products there is no doubt an additional incentive to take advantage of the public’s perception of sea salt as more nutritious and health-giving.
Ordinary table salt, the salt such as Morton’s which we are all familiar with, is sodium chloride (NaCl) and is commonly derived from halite (rock salt), mined from underground deposits. Salt has long been of great importance, not only to provide sodium in our diets and flavor to our dishes but also for food preservation and chemical production. In fact, table salt only accounts for about one percent of all the salt used and the rest is used to produce chloride, de-ice roads in winter, agriculture, food processing, and various other manufacturing processes. A great amount of salt is used in the dairy industry, for tanning leathers, fertilizer, caustic soda and soda ash.
Salt can also be mined by the evaporation of seawater. For instance, around the coast, seawater can be pumped into shallow ponds which are allowed to evaporate so that the salt crystallizes on the floor of the pond to be collected later. Alternatively, it can be taken from natural inland “brine springs” which occur where rock salt is close to the surface and water moving through the ground dissolves the salt and forms brine streams. It is also mined, as mentioned, from underground deposits as rock salt, which accounts for about one-third of salt production in the United States. These halite deposits come from the seas of long ago (millions of years) which have dried up and left their salt behind in huge amounts. Besides evaporation of seawater and rock salt, lake brines, and the salt crust from dry lake beds make up the rest of salt production.
All Salt is Sea Salt
When sea water evaporates a brine of sodium chloride (NaCl) forms, most of the other minerals precipitate out, and the salt crystals fall to the bottom of the solution. Although some additional trace minerals may be left in sea salt products, such as magnesium and iodide, there is no additional health benefit and the compositions of most salt sold for human consumption is close enough to identical to be called identical. As well, table salt has long been fortified with iodide so any iodide in sea salt products cannot be considered to be significant.
As you may have gathered, all salt can correctly be called “sea salt” since all salt, at one point, came from the sea. And, in fact, many of the products, sold as sea salt in your grocery store may well be the same exact salt that is sold as “salt” under another brand name. It may well have been supplied by the same company, coming from the same place. Morton salt, which most people are familiar with, comes mostly from land bound salt mining, except in California, where it is sea salt, sold as the same product. Morton does not label salt that comes from the land as sea salt, as some other brands do. But as stated, all salt is technically sea salt.
A 1992 article in Vegetarian Times magazine by Sally Cullen, “Salient Points About Salt“, reports that a senior lab technician for Cargil, Inc., a major salt producer, supplies salt to both natural-food companies and grocery stores. The only difference in the salts supplied, according to the technician, is the type of anti-caking additive used. The “natural” salts use magnesium carbonate and the grocery store salts use silica aluminate. Each company simply puts its own brand name on the product. According to the same article, Hain brand sea salt and Safeway house brand salt are the same salt, from the same producer, evaporating pans, and bin. 1
The consumer needs to be aware that unless a sea salt product is known to come from a particular location and the salt from this location is known to possess certain attributes, such as trace minerals or other deposits, which give it a unique flavor in cooking, there is no need to pay more for a product sold as “Sea Salt”.
It is frequently reported that sea salt is “less refined” than ordinary salt and while this is sometimes true it is not always the case. In the U.S. all salt sold for human consumption must contain at least 97.5 percent sodium chloride, whether labeled sea salt or not (this pertains products that can be named simply “salt, kosher salt, or sea salt, etc. without any other designation added). It must be free from heavy metal contaminants as well. This, essentially, means that all salts sold in the U.S. MUST be refined to some extent. A few different trace minerals may be present, here or there, depending on the salt’s origin, and these may contribute to flavor. But there is no significant nutritional difference whatsoever. Do not rely on sea salt as a way to ensure consumption of trace minerals. This would contribute nothing measurable except excess sodium, at best. Table salt contains around 21,00 to 23,00 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon, depending on the brand and degree of refinement.
The flavors and odors from a particular salt may be important to cooks, and various sea salts can make a difference in this regard. Some salts have other minerals added to them as well, such as Hawaiian sea salt which has Alaea, a volcanic red clay high in iron oxide, added to it. 2
Some other sea salts are Black salt, Kala Namak, or Sanchal, from India, which is not actually black but has a pink gray color and a sulfurous odor. Sel Gris from France, produced alongside the more expensive and highly regarded salt known as fleur de sel, and also called Celtic salt or Grey salt, is gray to light purple because of it’s clay content. Although the clay and other impurities would certainly influence the taste of this salt, it is not nearly as clear whether fleur de sel itself tastes any different than common salt, as revealed in the article linked above.
Other salts may be more or less refined depending and have slightly different flavor depending on the region they come from. See this overview of different salts for more information.
Don’t believe the claims you may read about the “healthful” benefits of sea salt versus “unnatural” table salt. These claims are imaginary and based on nothing but the typical concept that anything that sounds more natural must be better for you. Choose your salt based on its properties for your dishes, nothing else. (Additional sources: 3 4)
- Cullen, Sally. “Salient Points About Salt.” Vegeterian Times Mar. 1992: 16. Web. 5 July 2011.
- Troemel, Eileen. “Salt, Types of Salt, Cooking with Salt, Salt Substitutions, Salt Composition and Medical Uses, History of Salt.” What’s Cooking America. Web. 05 July 2011. <http://whatscookingamerica.net/Information/Salt.htm>
- Fielding, Andrew, and Annelise Fielding. The Salt Industry. Princes Risborough: Shire Publications, 2006. Print.
- Barnes-Svarney, Patricia L., and Thomas E. Svarney. The Handy Geology Answer Book. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 2004. 135-136. Print.