If you consider yourself to be a “foodie” or if you like to dabble a bit in the kitchen, you’re probably well aware that salt can play a key role in how your dishes taste. And there’s more to salt than what’s sitting in your saltshaker. In fact, you might be amazed at the number of varieties of salt. But which one is the best to use? And is there a type of salt that is healthier? Can you use salt if you have high blood pressure? Let’s explore some key salt facts.
What is salt?
Most of us know what salt is, at least by appearance. Chemically, salt is made up of two elements: sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl). These two elements bind together to make up what is formally known as sodium chloride (aka “salt”). Most of the salt that we consume comes from salt mines or from evaporated sea water. And table salt usually has iodine added to it (iodine is a mineral that is needed to make thyroid hormones).
Besides adding flavor, salt is used in food processing as a preservative, a binder, and a color enhancer.
Is salt the same as sodium?
The words “salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, but they’re different. Remember that salt contains sodium, along with chloride. Sodium is found in many foods, such as canned soup, frozen dinners, potato chips, deli meats, and fast foods. According to the American Heart Association, more than 70% of our sodium intake comes from processed and restaurant foods, 10% is added while cooking or eating, and 15% occurs naturally in foods.
Why do we need sodium?
Sodium is an essential nutrient and is needed in small amounts to help regulate fluid balance and keep muscles and nerves running smoothly. We only need about 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily for these purposes. Yet, most Americans consume an average of 3,400 mg per day. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily, and even less for children under 14 (some people with certain medical conditions may also need to target less than 2,300 mg — talk with your provider about the amount that is safe for you). Too much sodium in the diet can raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and stomach cancer.
Is it OK to use salt?
Since salt is obviously a source of sodium, it’s a good idea to go easy with the saltshaker. However, most people can use a small amount of salt in their diets. Using less salt on your food and in your cooking is important if you have high blood pressure. Adding salt at the end of cooking is one way to lessen your salt use, as the salt will have the greatest impact on flavor when added then. But what type of salt is best?
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Types of salt
There are many types of salt to choose from, ranging from the very basic to fancy, gourmet salts. Which is best and are any healthier than others?
This type of salt is milled so that the crystals are small and uniform in size. An anti-clumping agent is added to prevent, well, clumping. Iodine may or may not be added. Table salt dissolves quickly and works well in cooking and baking.
Kosher salt is a larger-grained, coarse salt with a flaky texture. Professional chefs often cook with kosher salt since its crystals draw out moisture from meat. Because of its larger grain size (meaning that less crystals fit on a spoon), there is less sodium in kosher salt per teaspoon compared to table salt.
Sea salt is made through the evaporation of salt water. It may contain trace amounts of minerals, such as iron, zinc, and potassium, depending on the water source. These minerals give color to the salt. Sea salt crystals come in a variety of textures, too. As with kosher salt, sea salt contains a little less sodium per teaspoon compared with table salt, due to its larger crystals. Fleur de sel (“flower of salt”) is a hand-harvested sea salt and is highly prized by chefs and home cooks alike. Maldon is another popular sea salt that is sourced from the waters off Essex, England.
Himalayan pink salt
This pale pink salt is mined from areas near the Himalayas, often in Pakistan. Its pretty color comes from trace amounts of iron oxide (aka “rust”). Despite claims about its health benefits, this salt really isn’t any healthier than other types of salt. Plus, it doesn’t contain added iodine. Most cooking experts recommend using Himalayan pink salt as a finishing salt — meaning, adding it to food after cooking and right before serving.
Light salt is a blend of sodium chloride and potassium chloride. It contains about half the sodium as regular table salt. While this product can be helpful in slashing your sodium intake, it may have a more metallic or bitter taste than what you’re used to.
Seasoned salt, such as garlic, onion, celery, or smoked salt, is salt with herbs or flavorings added. These salts contain the same amount of sodium as table salt.
What about salt substitutes?
Salt substitutes contain no sodium; instead, they contain potassium. Salt substitutes can be a good choice for some people, although if you have kidney problems, check with your doctor before using one, as too much potassium can be harmful.
There is very little difference, nutrition-wise, between the different types of salt. You’ll get slightly less sodium, per serving, with larger-crystal salts such as kosher and sea salts. However, all salt, except for light salt, contains between roughly 1,120 mg and 2,300 mg per teaspoon. Use a small amount and boost flavor with sodium-free seasonings instead, like herbs, spices, and pepper.
Want to learn about cutting back on sodium? Read “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”