Sodium chloride, better known as salt, is one of the most important ingredients in any kitchen. In addition to adding a salty flavor to a dish, salt can add dimension to the four other tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. But, you may have heard salt referred to as unhealthy. In actuality, the two minerals that make up salt, sodium and chloride, are essential to a healthy diet. These minerals are necessary for vital body functions, including sending electrical impulses, contracting and relaxing muscle fibers, and keeping your body fluids in balance. Any problems with salt lie in its excess. While the American Heart Association recommends that healthy individuals aim to consume less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day, the average American gets closer to 3,400 milligrams daily. High sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, which over time can damage your blood vessels and other organs and increase your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease.
As you can tell, it is important that you keep track of your sodium intake. One way you can do this is by paying special attention to the salt you use at home. But is one type of salt better than the rest? With so many varieties of salt available, deciding which type to use may feel overwhelming. In this post, we make your decision easier by highlighting some popular salts and comparing their nutritional properties.
The most common type of salt is table salt. Table salt is typically harvested using solution mining, a process in which wells are erected over salt beds and water is injected to dissolve the salt. This forms a brine which is pumped out, treated with chemicals to remove naturally-occurring trace minerals and then boiled and evaporated until only the salt remains. This process is called “refining”. An anti-caking agent may be added, which helps to prevent the fine grains from clumping. The final product is between 97-99% pure sodium chloride. In addition to being most commonly used to flavor finished dishes, table salt is used widely in cooking and baking for its flavor and small, easily-dissolved crystals.
Of note, iodine may also be added to table salt to prevent deficiency. While iodine deficiency is not common within the United States since the inception of iodized salt in 1924, it’s still a common health issue worldwide. It may also be of particular concern for plant-based eaters, since they omit fish and if they don’t consume sea vegetables. Using iodized salt in food preparation is one way to ensure adequate iodine intake for those following a plant-based diet.
Sodium Chloride Content: 97-99%
Mineral Content: Iodine (Often)
Other: Anti-caking agent
Is kosher salt kosher? As long as it’s produced under kosher supervision, any salt can be kosher. But kosher salt received its name because its original purpose was for koshering meat, which means that the salt was used to remove the blood from meat before it was eaten in adherence with traditional Jewish law. Kosher salt is similar to table salt but is distinguished by its large, coarse crystals, lower level of refinement, and typical lack of additives including iodine and anti-caking agents. Because additives can lend to a slightly metallic flavor in table salt, kosher salt has a cleaner, lighter taste. Kosher salt’s large grain size makes it desirable to chefs, who can easily pick it up and sprinkle it over food. When sprinkled over a finished dish, kosher salt gives a crunchy texture and burst of flavor. It also dissolves quickly, making it a perfect all-purpose cooking and baking salt. It is important to pay careful attention to measurements, as kosher salt’s larger granules cause it to have less sodium than table salt by volume, but not by weight.
Sodium Chloride Content: 99%
Minerals: Iodine (Rarely)
Other: Anti-caking agent (Rarely)
As its name suggests, sea salt is harvested from evaporated seawater. Sea salt varieties are named according to their origin, and can be in the form of fine crystals, medium flakes, or coarse crystals. Sea salt’s color and flavor profile are determined by its source, how it was processed, and its content of minerals such as zinc, potassium, iron, or naturally-occurring iodine. However, these minerals occur in trace amounts, leaving sea salt with the approximately same amount of sodium per weight as any other salt. Because its flavor can range from light to very salty, it can be difficult to replace substitute sea salt for other salts in recipes. Because of this, sea salt is best used as a garnish for a burst of flavor or unique mouthfeel in either savory or sweet recipes. While sea salts are usually less refined than table salt, pollution has become a growing concern. Pollutants like microplastics, the microscopic remains of plastic waste, have made their way into sea salt. While the health implications of microplastics in food are unclear, it is advisable to balance sea salt consumption with other salts. Sea salt can also contain trace amounts of heavy metals such as lead.
Sodium Chloride Content: 98-99%
Minerals: Dependent on its source
Other: Microplastics, heavy metals
Himalayan Pink Salt
Himalayan pink salt, which is harvested by hand in the Khewra Salt Mine in the Himalayan mountains of Pakistan, is considered by many to be the purest form of salt in the world. Its color, which ranges from off-white to deep pink, is due to its rich content of iron, one of the 84 trace elements found in Himalayan pink salt. Due to its mineral content, Himalayan pink salt is often also thought of as one of the healthiest salts. However, because these minerals are in insignificant amounts. there are no proven health advantages to using Himalayan salt. This salt is still predominantly sodium chloride and provides the same amount of sodium per weight as any other salt. In addition to increasing its visual appeal, Himalayan pink salt’s mineral content gives it a bolder flavor than many other salts, making it a popular choice for cooking and serving foods (in its slab form), or as a finishing salt for both food and drinks.
Sodium Chloride Content: 98%
Minerals: Boron, chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, selenium, zinc, iron
Also known as Celtic sea salt or sel gris, grey salt is a type of sea salt that is harvested by hand from the bottom of salt evaporation ponds off the coast of France. In these ponds, seawater is trapped and left to evaporate in the sun, after which they can be harvested. Grey salt is known for its moist, chunky grains and grey color, which comes from the naturally mineral-rich clay and seawater it is extracted from. It also has a distinct briny taste that makes it a perfect finishing salt for heartier foods like roasted vegetables or grilled meat and seafood. Because of its moisture-content, it does not suck the moisture out of a food when used as a finishing salt. Although grey salt has the lowest sodium chloride content of the salts listed so far, its mineral content is too low to make a perceptible impact on health.
Sodium Chloride Content: 84%
Minerals: Calcium, magnesium, potassium
Fleur de Sel
Fleur de sel, which is French for “flower of salt”, comes from the coast of Brittany, France, from some of the same salt evaporation ponds as grey salt. However, it is harvested differently. While grey salt is taken from the bottom of salt evaporation ponds, fleur de sel crystals are drawn from the water’s surface using traditional wooden rakes. Only 1.5 kilograms of fleur de sel are harvested for every 40 kilograms of grey salt. Because of its rarity and labor-intensive harvesting, fleur de sel is the most expensive type of salt available. Like grey salt, fleur de sel retains moisture and has a slight blue-grey tint from its mineral content and ocean origins. Fleur de sel is relatively high in zinc, potassium, iron, calcium, and magnesium. It is often described as smelling and tasting of the sea, and is used as a finishing salt for meat, seafood, vegetables, and sweets like chocolate and caramel. Like the other types of salt mentioned thus far, fleur de sel’s mineral content is too low for it to affect any tangible health benefits.
Sodium Chloride Content: 97%
Minerals: Zinc, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium
Himalayan Black Salt
Himalayan black salt, or “kala namak” in Nepalese, is made by covering Himalayan salt with charcoal, herbs, seeds, and bark and cooking it in a furnace for 24 hours. This is what gives Himalayan black salt its distinctive reddish-black color, its salty taste, and its sulfurous, boiled-egg smell. It is typically higher in potassium and calcium than table salt. Himalayan black salt is used in vegan and vegetarian dishes to mimic the taste of eggs. Himalayan black salt is also used in alternative medicine including Ayurveda, although any health claims surrounding Himalayan black salt have not yet been backed by research.
Sodium Chloride Content: 98%
Minerals: Potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron
Flake salt is thin, irregularly shaped salt that can be made via evaporation or boiling. Because of its low mineral content, its taste tends to be bright and very salty. Its thin shape means that flake salt can dissolve very quickly, so it is best used as a finishing salt on meats, salads, or desserts like chocolate chip cookies.
Sodium Chloride Content: 99%
Black Hawaiian Salt
As you probably guessed, black Hawaiian salt, also called black lava salt, comes from the volcanic islands of Hawaii. Black Hawaiian salt is made from sea water that evaporates in pools formed on hardened lava flows. Its black color comes from the addition of activated coconut charcoal, which also gives it a strong, earthy flavor and slightly sulfurous aroma. Like Himalayan black salt, black Hawaiian salt is higher than table salt in potassium and calcium, although it cannot boast any proven health benefits. Crunchy black Hawaiian salt is perfect as a finishing salt for grilled tempeh or tofu.
Sodium Chloride Content: 86%
Minerals: Potassium, calcium, iron
Other: Activated charcoal
Red Hawaiian Salt
Also called alaea salt, this type of Hawaiian salt gets its name and color from the iron-rich, red volcanic clay alaea that salt mixes with as tidal pools evaporate. Red Hawaiian salt is estimated to contain the highest concentration of essential trace minerals of any salt. While this may make it seem like a good option for those watching their salt intake, benefits of Hawaiian red salt over other varietals are yet to be seen. Traditionally, red Hawaiian salt was used to cleanse, purify, and bless tools, canoes, homes, and temples. Due to its nutty flavor, it is also used as a finishing salt in recipes.
Sodium Chloride Content: 84%
Minerals: Potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium
So, which is the healthiest?
While so far no studies have been conducted to compare the health benefits of different types of salt, it’s unlikely that such a study would find major benefits of any particular salt. Because most salts average around 98% sodium chloride, any health benefits or drawbacks would come from the trace minerals or additives that make up the other 2%. While in larger amounts each of these trace minerals can help the body function efficiently, the amount in salt is likely too small to be consequential. Because there is no scientific evidence to suggest that any type of salt is better or healthier than any other, the best choice for you depends on your goals, tastes, and personal preferences.
If you want to reduce your intake of processed ingredients, avoid table salt and opt for an unrefined salt with no additives, like pink Himalayan salt.
If you want to increase your iodine intake, choose an iodized salt. Unless you are regularly eating high-iodine foods like seafood, dairy, or eggs, iodine may be missing from your diet. Opting for an iodized salt can help keep your iodine intake in check.
If you are most concerned with taste or presentation, sample a few! Granule size and trace mineral content can affect the taste and color of salt. Try a variety like Hawaiian black or red salt for a more unique and fun experience.
Hi! My name is Katie Philippi and I am a student in Georgia State University's Coordinated Program for Dietetics. I have loved getting the opportunity to learn more and more about food and nutrition, and have taken a special interest in sports nutrition, intuitive eating, and disordered eating. Outside of nutrition, I enjoy traveling and spending time outdoors with friends, cooking, and trying new restaurants whenever I get the chance!