You might think that for something as basic as salt, it would be easy to get straight information. You’d be wrong. In the battle of Table Salt vs. Sea Salt, there is more misinformation, junk-science, just plain garbage, and nonsense circulating in the media, and internet, than China has tea. When I was asked to write this article, I did a quick cursory search on the web, just to be sure my knowledge of chemistry was still current, and was astounded at the wealth of totally useless information I found there. It would seem that this is one area where the Information Highway has been detoured.
Apparently, so-called Sea Salt is all the rage in health circles now. Claims are made that it is ‘healthier’ than ‘Table Salt’, has more minerals, is less processed, tastes better, has less sodium, has “the spirit of the ocean” in it that can somehow be transferred to humans (which might explain the ebb and flow of some peoples emotional ‘tides’….I usually catch them going out.) , and other extraordinary benefits. I think it’s time to dispel the ugly secret, and tell the truth about salt, which will undoubtedly result in my name being placed on many salt distributors ‘you-know-what’ list.
Here is the whole truth…….salt is salt, period. Whether it is called Table Salt, or Sea Salt, they all come from the same source, and have the same chemical make-up. Chemically and nutritionally, there is no difference. There are some slight differences in appearance due to some mineral impurities in salt obtained through man-made evaporation, and there may be a slight difference in taste (as a chef, I challenge anyone to do a blindfold-test with different salts ground to the same consistency, and identify them…..you will fail), but these are due more to the differences in the grind, rather than anything in the salt.
Salts are ionic compounds that contain both positive and negative ions, making them electrically neutral. There are both organic such as acetate, and inorganic salts, such as chloride, as well as basic salts, neutral salts, and acid salts. Salts that are dissolved in water are called electrolytes because they can conduct electricity. This is one of the functions they serve in your body. They also bond readily to water molecules, making them useful for moving water from one place to another. The seasoning we call ‘salt’ is actually sodium chloride, an ionic salt. It’s chemical symbol is NaCl. The two chemicals that make up the salt molecule, sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl), which is just a chlorine atom with an extra electron, are vital to the survival of all life. It regulates the water balance within bodies, and the sodium is needed for electrical conduction within muscles, organs and nervous systems.
Now, for the next shocker; all sodium chloride is ‘Sea Salt’. You read it right. All salt sold in stores is ‘Sea Salt’ (with the exception of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which is also a salt, but a subject for another article…). Salt is formed in the oceans, whether they are current, or evaporated millions of years ago. Salt is the deposit left behind when sea water evaporates. Whether it is ‘Sea Salt’ or ‘Table Salt’ is just a function of how the water was evaporated. If the water was evaporated naturally, over several geologic eras, then the salt deposits can be mined, and will be marketed as Table Salt. There are many areas that contain ancient salt deposits, such as the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and parts of Siberia. The other method for harvesting salt is to simply evaporate large quantities of sea water by man-made methods, very quickly. It is the same salt as the ‘Table’ variety. The other difference is that mined salt may have harmful impurities in it from the ground, so it is refined to remove them, and since 1920, has had iodine, and anti-caking elements added to it. The iodine was added to combat a rash of thyroid goiter, which was traced to a deficiency of iodine in the American diet. Salt harvested from the sea does not need to have anything removed, as the mineral impurities it contains are negligible, so it is simply ground and shipped out. The law does not require iodine to be added to salt harvested from the sea, because sea water does have trace amounts of iodine in it. Other than that, all sodium chloride contains the same chemical make-up:
Chloride (Cl-) 55.03%
Sodium (Na+) 30.59%
Sulfate (SO42-) 7.68%
Magnesium (Mg2+) 3.68%
Calcium (Ca2+) 1.18%
Potassium (K+) 1.11%
Bicarbonate (HCO3-) 0.41%
Bromide (Br-) 0.19%
Borate (BO33-) 0.08%
Strontium (Sr2+) 0.04%
From a chemistry standpoint, Table Salt vs. Sea Salt = draw.
So one type of salt is just as ‘natural’ as the other, and both have the same nutritional values. The various anti-caking agents added to mined salt are usually either a silicate or phosphate and are totally harmless. The maximum amount of additives in salt, by law, cannot exceed 2%, including the iodine and minerals. It is usually much less. The color in ‘Sea Salt’ is just mineral impurities, and has little, if any effect on taste. What differs in taste is the coarseness of the grind, not the constituents.
There is one area where ‘Sea Salt’ differs from ‘Table Salt’ significantly, and that is price. A container of Morton’s Salt costs around 55 cents for 25 oz., which is a slightly more than 1.5 pounds. This makes it less than .50 cents per pound. The generic brands are cheaper. Sea Salt runs anywhere from $4.00 per pound, to over $20.00 per pound, depending on color, location and brand! Talk about sticker shock……And all for no discernible benefits.
By the way, both salts are equally bad for you in excessive amounts. We consume way more salt than we need, just in our processed foods. You only need around 2000mg of sodium daily. This is plenty. In fact, if you are of African-American decent, or have hypertension, or diabetes, you should probably try to cut back to 1500mg daily. You get more than that just in the normal foods you eat. Think about that the next time you reach for the salt shaker.
So the bottom line in the battle of Table Salt vs. Sea Salt is that if you don’t mind the extra expense to impress your guests, feel free to go with the gourmet ‘Sea Salts’. If you are like me, and can’t see the advantage in spending a lot of money on something that will result in little or no improvement to the finished product, then stick to plain old table salt. Whichever one you use, think moderation.