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What Is the Healthiest Salt?

The Healthy logo The Healthy 03-11-2020 Linda Rodgers

Salt is having a moment

Even if you're not really paying attention to food trends, you've probably noticed the explosion of different kinds of salt available at your local grocery store. Walmart, for instance, sells everything from Fleur de sel to Black Hawaiian sea salt to too-many-to-count brands of Pink Himalayan. So what's behind the interest in something so basic a seasoning?

Most likely a burgeoning interest in gourmet food culture, the perceived health benefits for certain types of salt, and the various salts' unique flavor profiles, explains Caroline West Passerrello, RDN, a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an instructor at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Now that you're in the kitchen more, it makes sense to learn what each of these types of salts is best suited for—and whether there are hidden health benefits to using one more than the other.

Spoiler alert: While some salts are better for people watching their sodium consumption, the answer for most of us will come down to our individual tastes and cooking styles.

a bowl of food © MirageC/Getty Images Salt and sodium: Too much is not a good thing

First, though, it helps to understand what salt is. It's made up of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. All salts, even those that contain other minerals, will have the same basic nutritional value, says Passarrello.

"The current dietary guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. However, the average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams per day," she says.

Most of that sodium, a whopping 70 percent, comes from processed foods and restaurant meals, she notes—not salt added during cooking or at the table.

Still, a quarter of a teaspoon of sea or table salt can be as much as 590 mg (depending on the brand), or about 26 percent of your recommended daily value, according to the USDA's Food Data Central. (Here are some other signs you're eating too much sodium.)

"As a dietician, I'm actually not on the side where I think everybody should restrict and be fearful of salt. But I do believe that there are people who can be very sensitive to salt. And then if they have health conditions that's when you need to start limiting it," says Wendy Jo Peterson, RDN, a culinary dietician in San Diego, California and the author of the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies.

So if you have high blood pressure and your provider wants you to limit your sodium, keep that in mind—and always look at the nutritional labels to check for the amount of sodium, as some brands have lower amounts than others. You might also want to avoid these other foods if you have high blood pressure.

Here is a rundown on the various types of salts and how to determine which one is right for you.

Table salt

"Table salt is exactly what it implies—it's the standard salt you might see in a salt shaker at a restaurant," says Abbie Gellman, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and chef at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.

What it looks like: "The crystals are of a uniform size and very, very small," Gellman notes.

Best used for: Those tiny crystals can be useful when baking. "If you're making a batter, for example, that is not going to get heated until it's in the oven, then maybe you would want to use something smaller that might blend more evenly," says Gellman.

Is it healthy? There's a drawback to those evenly sized crystals. With table salt, it's easier to over-salt your food because it can pour out of the shaker if you're not paying attention, Gellman notes—while eating and cooking. And that may not be such a great thing if you've got to keep your sodium levels low.

But it often has iodine (check the label to make sure), and about 45 percent of your Daily Value (DV is the amount you should aim for).

"Iodine is an element essential for maintaining a healthy thyroid and deficiencies can lead to an enlarged thyroid, also known as a goiter," Passarrello explains. The DV for iodine for most adults is 150 mcg, says Passarrello (you'll need more if you're pregnant or breastfeeding).

If you're not a fan of seafood or dairy (which are other sources of iodine), you may want to rely on iodized salt and a supplement. And check to see if you have these silent signs of an iodine deficiency.

Kosher salt

"This is my favorite," says Gellman, who calls it her workhorse in the kitchen.

What it looks like: "Generally it's a coarser salt, so when you're seasoning a dish you have more control over how much is coming out," says Gellman. When recipes call for coarse salt, they usually mean kosher salt.

Best used for: Any type of dish really—from stews to roasts. But it's also ideal for brining as it tends to be a less expensive type of salt, notes Peterson.

"If I were going to brine a turkey, I would probably use a kosher salt because it has a good flavor and it's a big coarse salt," she adds. Another reason to use it for brining: It may keep the bacterial count down in your Thanksgiving bird (and other poultry), according to researchers at Texas A&M University. Use it instead of the more specialized pickling salt to pickle vegetables too, suggests Gellman.

Is it healthy? Because of the size of the crystals, Gellman recommends kosher salt for people who need to keep their sodium levels in check since you'll be using less salt when you season. "You can get more bang for your buck out of a larger crystal," she explains.

Kosher salt doesn't have iodine, though, so make sure you get what you need elsewhere, like dairy products (a cup of nonfat Greek yogurt has 116 mcg, notes Passarrello), eggs, and seafood.

Sea salt

Sea salt is the generic term for salts that are made from evaporated ocean water. Besides the standard sodium and chloride, there are other nutrients, like iron or zinc, depending on where the salt is harvested.

"So if it's from the Mediterranean, then it might have one list of trace nutrients. But if it's from someplace off the coast of Hawaii, there might be a totally different list of nutrients in there. Which is also why the price tag changes depending on where it's coming from," says Gellman.

What it looks like: It depends on the type of salt, but generally it ranges from coarse to finer grounds, depending on the brand.

Best used for: Because trace minerals add flavor, sea salt is versatile. "Typically, I use sea salt for most everything because of those different elements of flavor," says Peterson. It can even be used for finishing a dish, though the fancier kinds (see below) may be better for this.

Is it healthy? Sea salt does have iodine, but not enough to meet your daily requirement, so again make sure you eat dairy or seafood regularly. Or sprinkle some seaweed on your food, recommends Peterson. "Especially if you're a vegan and you're not getting in dairy," she says. You'll be surprised at how many health benefits seaweed has.

Sel gris/Celtic sea salt

Sel gris is harvested off the coast of Brittany in France. It's also known as Celtic sea salt, which is the trademarked name for a brand of salt that is usually less expensive and sold by the bag.

What it looks like: It is usually a coarser, grayish-tinged salt—hence the name (in French, sel gris means gray salt). You can also get finer ground versions.

Best used for: "You could use this in place of kosher salt, for example, as your workhorse, if you like the taste better," says Gellman. Not sure how to test taste salts to find your fave? Peterson recommends spreading unsalted butter on crackers and sprinkling different varieties on each one. "You can really figure out what salt, speaks to you and your taste buds, or perhaps even the dish that you're cooking," she says.

Is it healthy? Like all sea salts, sel gris has trace minerals—in this case, mainly magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. But they're in such minuscule amounts that they won't really add much to your overall health (though they do add to the taste of the salt). Like kosher salt, it also tends to have less sodium than table salt too—480 mg (or 20 percent of the DV), depending on the brand.

Fleur de sel

This is a cousin to sel gris, and also comes from the coast of France, but it's a much more expensive salt.

What it looks like: More delicate and flakier than sel gris, Fleur de sel is also a bit moister than other salts, says Peterson.

Best used for: To finish sweet or savory dishes. "This salt is usually very expensive, and a little bit goes a long way. So I would put it on top of crème brulée or on top of a piece of roasted fish, but this would be a showcase salt," Gellman explains. You can also sprinkle it on a platter of vegetables or on top of grilled meats, which is what Peterson does.

Is it healthy? Like other sea salts, fleur de sel also has trace minerals, usually calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium, which adds to the flavor, though the amounts are too small to add much to your health. (Here are some better ways to get potassium into your system.)

Pink Himalayan

These salts are harvested from mines in Pakistan, making this both a rock salt and a sea salt, since the rock mines are located on the site of an ancient seabed.

What it looks like: Usually very coarse, large crystals. Pink Himalayan salt gets its pinkish color from iron oxide, says Gellman, one of its trace elements. You can also get finer grains, depending on the brand.

Best used for: As a finishing salt to put on top of a chocolate chip cookie or something that you want the salt to be part of the presentation, says Gellman, who keeps some for this purpose in her kitchen.

"I wouldn't really use a Himalayan pink salt to bake with or to cook with," says Peterson, who is also the author of Bread Making for Dummies. "You definitely don't want to put a colored salt into a bread, because it will turn your dough a funny color, which all of a sudden creates a very unpalatable food." (Not a bread baker? Here are the many healthy reasons why you should eat more bread.)

Is it healthy? Boosters claim that Pink Himalayan is super-healthy because it's lower in sodium and has many minerals, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and fluoride. But the bigger the crystal, the less salt you'll use and the less sodium you'll consume, says Passarrello. As for those minerals—again, you're not getting enough to do very much for you nutritionally, says Peterson.

Black Himalayan/Kala Namak

This salt also comes from mines, mainly in India and Pakistan.

What it looks like: Coarse crystals that are black or even purple-ish, says Peterson.

Best used for: "It's quite popular in Indian cooking," says Peterson, thanks to its strong flavor from its mineral contents. Use it in curries and chutneys, or to give a kick to veggies.

Is it healthy? Indian researchers put Himalayan black salt under a high-powered microscope as well as other machines to tease apart its geochemical properties. They found that it contained iron, magnesium, and calcium and was lower in sodium than either sea salt or Pink Himalayan.

Red and Black Hawaiian

These two come from the Hawaiian ocean, so they are considered sea salts.

What they look like: The red Hawaiian salt is mixed with clay, and gets its coloring from iron oxide. The black Hawaiian salt contains charcoal, which gives it a smoky flavor as well as its color. Both are coarser grained salts.

Best used for: These are specialty salts, says Gellman. Since they both have interesting flavors, use them as finishing salts. "If you imagine the salt on top of a cookie, you get that flavor and salt also brings out the sweet. Or if it's on a piece of meat, fish, or vegetables, you'll taste the salt first," she explains. While you can cook dishes with these, you might lose some of what makes them special, she adds.

Are they healthy? No more or less than other salts. And if you're leery of ingesting charcoal, skip the black kind. (And yes, putting charcoal in foods is a thing—ever heard of black ice cream?)

The bottom line

"Unless you're somebody who really cooks and entertains, and has a use for 10 different kinds of salt, I don't think it's necessary to have all these types of salt," says Gellman.

So find one or two to cook with, as well as a more specialized type to finish a dish, and you'll be fine. But concentrate on the flavors, not their health claims.

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