Sea salt is an essential ingredient for sustaining life and promoting health. We can’t live without it. But contrary to popular belief, not all salt is created equal.
Health food stores and an increasing number of grocery stores now offer various “natural” salts in hues from light pink to dark gray and sourced from places as diverse as France, Pakistan, Guatemala, and Portugal.
So, are these costlier mineral salts really superior to regular table salt? And what is the difference between, say, Celtic sea salt and Himalayan salt crystals? And are the health and flavor benefits of these natural salts worth the extra cost?
According to experts such as Dr. Lynne August, M.D., commercially produced salt actually does more harm than good. Seductive images of pristine waters suggest that these commercial brands are naturally sourced, but common table salt is not obtained by simply evaporating sea water (natural sea salt is gray and moist). Instead, it’s dried at over 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, a process that alters the salt’s chemical structure and destroys any beneficial minerals it may have.
What remains is more than 97 percent sodium chloride, an unnatural form of salt that the human body doesn’t recognize and struggles to process. Plus, commercial salt contains a slew of chemical additives such as free-flowing agents, bleach, and even dextrose (corn sugar). Ostensibly, these additives improve the color, texture, and flavor. But they also contribute toxins we just don’t need. And given the standard American diet, most Americans consume far too much bad salt anyway, which contributes to health issues from cellulite and edema to blood pressure and kidney problems.
As usual, profit drives these production methods. Most salt (93 percent) is produced for industrial purposes — and industry requires chemically pure sodium chloride for the manufacture of such things as plastics, explosives, and fertilizers. Since only 7 percent of all salt produced is used for culinary purposes, there is little financial incentive to reformulate it for human consumption.
The FDA has frequently attempted to curb our excessive salt intake by recommending low-salt or salt-free diets and encouraging us to check the sodium content of canned or processed foods. But, since industry wields such powerful political influence, the conversation has never focused on what kind of salt does the damage.
Celtic: Salt Of The Sea
According to Selina Delangre, owner of Selina Naturally, the only salt that offers any real health benefits is unprocessed sea salt with minerals intact. The quality of the final product depends on several critical factors: where the salt comes from, how it’s gathered and treated during harvesting, whether there are any risks of contamination during storage and transportation, and the purity of the final product.
“I make a point of visiting my suppliers and getting to know them,” Delangre says. “The integrity of their whole operation is hugely important.” Selina Naturally, which has been in business since 1976, also processes its own brand of Celtic sea salt.
Despite the implications of the name, Celtic sea salt doesn’t refer to any particular region. “We’re not talking about Scotland or Ireland here,” Delangre says. “Celtic salt comes from Spain, France, Hawaii, a bunch of different places. It’s all about the method of extraction and the quality.”
Celtic salt is harvested annually, in a very traditional manner. First, the sea water is pumped into a reservoir and, from there, into “salt flats” (similar to rice paddies) where it remains for seven to 10 days. It’s then transferred to a second, shallower pond. This process can be repeated as many as 12 times.
“The minerals are all in the natural sea brine, and the result is a very mineral-rich salt, about 82 percent sodium chloride,” Delangre says. “The rest is made up of magnesium, potassium, calcium, and a bunch of other trace minerals, a balance that makes it easy for the body to absorb.”
In other words, to quote August, “Commercial salts are sodium chloride. Sodium chloride by itself is a chemical. Celtic sea salt is food!”
Ever-increasing sea pollution from chemical waste, trash, oil disasters, etc. affects not only sea life and seafood but also salt producers. And, pollution aside, the designation “sea salt” is meaningless anyway. Any salt can be labeled sea salt, which tells you only that it was sourced from the sea. Most so-called sea salt is refined in the same way (and in the same refineries) as table salt and ends up with a sodium chloride content of more than 98 percent. That’s just one reason why Delangre suggests avoiding generic products altogether, “unless the company is transparent and willing to provide you with a lab printout, specifying exactly what’s in the salt. There are a lot of counterfeits out there!”
There’s definitely nothing counterfeit about Kona Sea Salt from Hawaii. General manager Melanie Kelekolio explains that because the offshore shelf of the Big Island suddenly drops precipitously to several thousand feet, pristine sea water can be drawn from 2,000 feet below the surface. “It’s pumped first through a filter and then straight into enclosed, evaporating tents, with no exposure to air or toxins,” she says. “The air in these tents is filtered, too, to avoid any risk of contamination during the drying process.”
It takes four to five weeks to dry 6,000 liters of this sea water, resulting in 240 to 300 kilos of salt, which is then hand-harvested into buckets before being transferred into special hoppers. “We keep careful track of sea pollution levels and do a monthly lab analysis to ensure proper mineral content,” Kelekolio says. “But the source is so pure, we’re not too concerned. In fact, it’s so pure, that our salt is bright, sparkling white, instead of the usual gray color. And because it contains less sodium than regular Celtic salt, it tastes sweeter, so you don’t need to use as much.”
Himalyan: Salt Of The Earth
Himalayan salt, on the other hand — commonly seen in the form of pink crystals — isn’t sea salt at all. It’s mined from the mountains of Pakistan and, never having been in contact with the ocean, it has no brine. In spite of enthusiastic endorsement by some advocates, a lab analysis carried out by a German consumer protection agency on 15 samples of Himalayan salt revealed a level of sodium chloride of 98 percent. That’s on a par with regular table salt. Plus, the Himalayan samples contained an array of heavy metals and only very small amounts of a few trace minerals.
Also, it turns out that Himalayan salt, like table salt, is acidic. Since the body requires an alkaline environment in order to function most efficiently, it’s constantly battling acidity (all processed foods, tea, coffee, alcohol, meat, and fast foods are very acidic). So loading your diet with even more acid is a decidedly bad idea. Both Celtic sea salt and Kona salt are highly alkaline.
It’s worth noting, too, that an entire industry has sprung up around Himalayan salt, including salt lamps, which have incidentally been shown to emit health-giving particles (negative ions) when lit. If you opt for Himalayan salt, just be sure to get it from a trusted source such as the fair trade brand, So Well, because since it’s now “fashionable,” what you see is not necessarily what you get.
Take It With A Pinch
Sea salt as nature intended, unprocessed and mineral-rich, is definitely a valuable and even necessary part of a healthy diet. If you’re unfamiliar with these salts, check them out. See which ones you like best, because tastes do vary. And, whether you decide to buy it from a health food store or from the internet, be sure to verify the source and, if necessary, request a lab report.
Regular table salt is the equivalent of bleached, processed flour or refined, white sugar; it’s devoid of all nutrients and potentially harmful to your health. Opt for salt as mother nature intended. As usual, she got it right the first time.