Integral to ancient religious practices, trade, politics, and the growth of economies, salt has played key roles in social and cultural developments around the world throughout history. Salt maintains a significant presence in our lives today as a controversial component of our diets. What is salt? Is it good for you or bad? Is salt Paleo? Read on for answers.
What is Salt?
Salt is a compound of sodium and chloride. Both are electrolytes that regulate the volume of extracellular fluid and play essential roles in muscle and nerve function. However, it’s sodium that’s fascinating and controversial nutritionally. But before we get into the pros and cons of dietary sodium, let’s just talk about salt.
Salt is extracted from seas, salty lakes, oceans, and dry deposits (some that are ancient) found above and below ground. Therefore, all salt originates in water as “sea salt.” If it’s obtained from a dry deposit, we call it “rock salt.”
Sea salt is a general term for salt that is made via solar evaporation (the evaporation of seawater). It is usually unrefined but you have to check the package label to know for sure. Sea salt comes in fine and coarse varieties.
Rock salt is the salt that remains from dried up lakes, oceans, and seas. The Paleo favorite Himalayan Pink Salt is rock salt. Like sea salt, rock salt comes in fine and coarse varieties and may be refined, so check labels.
Okay, so, salt is either refined or unrefined but what exactly does that mean?
What is Refined Salt?
In addition to sodium and chloride, natural sea salt contains minerals referred to as “impurities” that lend it color and perhaps taste. The refining process removes the impurities leaving salt with a bright white color and neutral flavor. It’s usually rock salt, not sea salt, that’s refined and the most common varieties are table salt and kosher salt.
Refined salt is nearly 100% sodium chloride and always consists of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. The amount of sodium in a serving can vary because that depends on the size of the salt grain. Larger grains equal less sodium per serving. For example, a teaspoon of finely ground table salt contains 2325 mg of sodium compared to a teaspoon of large grain Morton’s Coarse Kosher salt that contains 1,720 mg of sodium.
Table salt, as we already know, is processed to remove all minerals except sodium and chloride. Added to table salt are ingredients such as calcium silicate to prevent sticking and clumping and iodine to prevent goiters that result from iodine-deficiency, which prior to salt supplementation was common in certain areas of the United States. Along with iodine, stabilizers are added to prevent its degradation that include sodium bicarbonate, sodium thiosulfate, or dextrose (which is a corn product). Table salt is inexpensive and is meant to be used as an all purpose salt during cooking and afterwards, as a finisher.
Kosher salt, like table salt, is refined but its distinction lies in its larger, coarser grain and the fact that anti-caking agents and iodine are usually not added. Larger grains are suitable for koshering meat, or absorbing all the blood after an animal is properly slaughtered according to Jewish tradition. Coarser salt grains provide a desirable flavor burst when eaten and chefs tend to favor kosher salt over table salt, perhaps for this reason. Kosher salt is all purpose and used during cooking and as a finisher.
What Is Unrefined Salt?
Unrefined salt maintains its elemental integrity. It has lower sodium and chloride concentrations than refined salt because it retains all original minerals. According to Marine Science, all salt deposits contain the same mixture of elements and are 85.62% sodium chloride and 14.38% other minerals that are found in seawater: sulphate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, bromide, borate, strontium, and fluoride (1,2).
However, distinctive colors and flavors of unrefined salts reflect variations in algae and mineral concentrations in the silt and clay that is, or was at one time, local to the source of the salt. And sometimes sea salt is blended with natural additives that add color and interest. Unfortunately, traces of pollutants can also end up in your salt, if the water and land where the salt is procured is contaminated.
What you won’t find in unrefined sea salt are anti-caking agents or added iodine. In fact, if you don’t eat iodized salt, you’ll want to make sure you’re including whole foods in your diet that naturally contain a significant amount of iodine such as sea vegetables (kelp), cranberries, potatoes, fish (particularly cod), seafood, and eggs.
Let’s take a closer look at 5 popular types of unrefined salt:
Grey Sea Salt
Also known as Sel Gris or Celtic Salt, grey sea salt gets its grey color and slightly bitter taste from minerals in the clay lining coastal salt ponds in France. The salt is hand raked from these ponds and retains a moistness; a characteristic that distinguishes it from other types of sea salt. Grey sea salt tends to be more expensive than other unrefined salts due to the labor intensive process involved in procuring it.
Fleur de sel
Also known as “flower of salt,” fleur de sel is hand-harvested along the French coastline in the same ponds as grey sea salt, however it consists of crystals that collect on the surface of the water (grey sea salt consists of the crystals that sink to the bottom). These surface crystals form the shapes of flowers, or snowflakes and some claim they have the faint scent of violets. Fleur de sel crystals are gathered by skimming the water’s surface and only 1-3 pounds is ever produced for every 80 pounds of sel gris. Fleur de sel is very expensive and used as a “gourmet” finishing salt.
Hawaiian Alaea Salt
This kind of salt is sea salt mixed with a bit of local red volcanic Alaea clay. This clay gets its red color from naturally occurring iron oxide
Black Lava Salt
This kind of salt is exotic and from Hawaii, so it seems completely plausible that it could naturally be black—I mean, Hawaii has black sand beaches right?—but it is not. Black lava salt is sea salt mixed with activated charcoal.
Himalayan Pink Salt
Perhaps the most popular salt in the Paleo world, Himalayan pink salt is harvested from the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan. This salt mine is the second largest in the world and part of a vast salt range that is the remains of an ancient evaporated sea. The salt gets its pink color from the presence of iron oxide but reportedly contains many more elements than that. Per spectral analysis conducted by The Meadow, Himalayan pink salt contains 84 minerals, electrolytes, and elements. The perception, therefore, is that this salt is very healthy because it provides so many trace nutrients. But is this perception accurate? Let’s see. (3)
Himalayan pink salt contains elements that we know have nothing to do with nutrition such as oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen as well as elements whose nutritional benefit is unknown. I mean, do traces of ruthenium impact our health in any meaningful way? Not that I can determine.
Apparently Himalayan pink salt also contains traces of toxins such as plutonium, arsenic, cadmium, uranium, radium, and lead. In such trace amounts these toxins don’t harm us, but by the same token, since almost all of the other substances in the analysis are present in trace amounts, why would they benefit us? (4,5)
Whether or not the mineralization of Himalayan pink salt makes it a healthy addition to your diet is for you to decide. I like it because it’s unrefined and it’s a pretty color. Himalayan pink salt is available in fine and coarse grains and is becoming popular in block form. Salt blocks can be used as an attractive serving platter or they can be used for cooking in the oven or on the grill.
Dietary Salt, Sodium, and Your Health
As previously mentioned, the most controversial component of salt is sodium, a mineral essential for life. Sodium is essential for the proper functioning of muscles and nerves, pH balance, hydration, and fluid balance outside of cells. The role of dietary sodium takes on additional importance for athletes who are “heavy” and “salty” sweaters. Conventional wisdom holds that excess sodium consumption causes increased blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke and excess sodium is linked to stomach cancer, osteoporosis, and other conditions. (6, 7)
The typical American eats about 3,400 mg of sodium/day, or about 1.5 tsp of salt. Most of this comes from processed foods. The RDA for sodium is less than 2,300 mg/day (1 teaspoon) or even less at 1,500 mg a day if you’re 51 or older, or if you are African American, have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.
Although reducing high sodium intakes has been shown to reduce blood pressure by a significant number of points, studies on the efficacy of salt reduction are mixed and it’s unclear if reducing salt to recommended levels is universally beneficial. In fact, it may even be harmful for some people. For example, salt restriction is associated with insulin resistance, elevated triglycerides, and elevated stress hormones. (8,9,10)
Other studies have shown that sodium restriction leads to the very things it is supposed to decrease including risk for stroke and heart disease. A very large study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who consumed a moderate amount of sodium of between 3000 to 6000 mg/day, were healthier than people who consumed either more than this or less. (11)
Is Salt Paleo?
Salt is essential to human health. It adds flavor and interest to food and evidence suggests that keeping sodium intake in a moderate range may lead to better health than you would have with a very low or very high sodium intake. When it’s free of refinement, salt is Paleo as part of a whole foods diet.
Since processed foods provide 77% of the salt in the standard American diet, you may actually benefit from increasing your intake of salt if you’re Paleo! If you’re not one to use the salt shaker, you can choose natural food sources of salt such as sea vegetables, fish, shellfish, meat, celery, carrots, bell peppers, beets, spinach, broccoli, Bok Choy, artichokes, honeydew melon, and turnips. (12)
Ultimately, the amount of salt in your diet should depend on your individual preference for salt, the amount of exercise you do, your health status, and the advice of your health care practitioner.