What Kind of Salt is Best for Women’s Health?
Recommendations about salt have gotten confusing lately. Whereas we’ve been told for years that we’re consuming too much, recent scientific studies have cast doubt on that theory.
Could it be that most of us are just fine where salt is concerned, and need to be more conscious, instead, of eating more whole (instead of processed) foods? Many experts think so.
Others say salt isn’t the problem at all. Rather, it’s the kind of salt we’re using. Most of the studies showing negative health outcomes from a high-sodium diet focused basic table salt (NaCl), they argue. Natural salts, on the other hand, are healthier for you.
Is this true? When it comes to our health, does it really matter what kind of salt we’re eating?
What’s Up with Regular Table Salt?
It used to be that table salt was the main salt everyone used, as it was the easiest to get, and no one thought twice about it. Today, however, Americans have access to a number of different types of salt. The larger choice has only served to make things more confusing for many, as each brand claims to be healthier than the others.
Regular table salt is commercially refined, with manufacturers removing minerals and impurities from the final product. The raw ingredient is usually mined from underground salt deposits, and it contains salt along with other things, including magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate, and potassium chloride. The amount of these other substances varies with the source of the salt. Rock salt, for instance, can also contain other impurities, like shale and quartz.
Once manufacturers have the raw material, they process it to extract the salt alone. This may involve washing and milling, drying, heating, and potentially bleaching, after which an anti-caking agent is added to prevent clumping. All salts absorb water from the environment, which means they can clump, so manufacturers use anti-caking compounds to keep the salt free-flowing.
Most types of table salt also contain iodine as an additive, put there starting in the early 1900s when Americans were found to be deficient in the nutrient. Though veggies like Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage, along with seafood, all contain some iodine, a 2007 study indicated that iodine deficiency disorders remain one of the biggest worldwide health problems today.
After all the processing, table salt ends up being about 97.5 percent (or higher) sodium chloride. The other 2.5 percent contains iodine, anti-caking ingredients, and sometimes MSG (as a stabilizer) and aluminum derivatives (like sodium solo-co-aluminate).
So how does that stack up against other alternatives?
Comparing Table Salt to “Healthy” Salts
Proponents of so-called “healthy” salts say that they are better for us because they are less processed and contain more trace minerals than table salt. Both of these things are true. Sea salt, for example, which is made by evaporating seawater, may still be processed to remove impurities, but it typically retains more trace minerals like potassium, iron, and zinc. It’s also ground less than refined salt, so it has a different texture.
These two differences make it taste different, which is one reason why a lot of people like it. It also may be slightly lower in sodium chloride than table salt, say 87 percent or so, though this varies between brands.
In a 2011 study, for instance, researchers compared sea salts, and found that they had different flavors (green/herbal, smoky, earthy), that they varied in mineral content, and that three out of the 38 kinds tested had 30 percent less sodium than table salt. All contained small amounts of trace minerals, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, and iron.
Himalayan salt, which is mined from salt caves, is stone-ground, and is pink in color. Proponents say it has more minerals and is less processed than table salt. Both of these statements are true, but whether that results in health benefits is still unknown, simply because we need more large studies comparing it with other types of salt, and because the amount of minerals in the product is low.
“Pink salt is quite popular at the moment,” dietician Rene Ficek told Yahoo Health, “but it’s health claims may be grossly overstated.”
The product does contain phosphorus, bromine, zinc, and other minerals, but because the amounts are miniscule, it’s unclear whether they would truly create long-term health benefits in humans. It’s stone-ground, however, and does come in larger granules than table salt—as does sea salt. That may mean you consume a bit less sodium overall, though the difference is likely to be small.
Celtic sea salt is another “natural” salt harvested near the Celtic sea with little processing. Producers claim it has a high mineral content, but so far we lack independent scientific research to confirm that claim.
Bottom Line: Which Salt to Choose?
It seems pretty clear that table salt is more highly processed than sea salt and some other “healthy” salts. It also contains more additives, and in some cases, may contain slightly more sodium chloride. (Many “healthy” salts contain just as much sodium chloride, however, so it’s important that consumers understand that in most cases, they’re consuming just as much salt as usual.)
Because of the difference in trace mineral content and processing, healthy salts taste different, and many people prefer that taste to the typical free-flowing white salt taste. Many also feel better knowing that they’re not ingesting the additives, even though we have no studies showing that the additives in regular table salt are anything but safe.
Whether using salt alternatives will make a big difference in your overall health, however, is still unclear. We’re used to believing that natural, less processed foods are healthier for us. Whole-grain bread, for example, contains quite a bit more nutrients than white bread, and is often recommended as a healthier alternative.
But the differences between natural salts and table salts aren’t quite as large, because the mineral amounts are small either way. If you’re looking for minerals, you’ll find a lot more in your regular daily diet.
From what we know so far, it seems that it won’t make much difference to women’s health whether they choose table salt or natural salt. Overall sodium consumption is probably more important, especially if you eat a lot of processed or restaurant foods that contain sodium. Your best bet is to eat more natural, whole foods, eat at home more often, and enjoy whatever salt brand you like best.
Read more: Could Women Be Consuming Too Little Salt?
Peter Whoriskey, “Is the American diet too salty? Scientists challenge the longstanding government warning,” Washington Post, April 6, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/04/06/more-scientists-doubt-salt-is-as-bad-for-you-as-the-government-says/.
Harriet V. Kuhnlein, “The trace element content of indigenous salts compared with commercially refined substitutes,” Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 1980; 10(2):113-121, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03670244.1980.9990626.
Katherine Zeratsky, “What’s the difference between sea salt and table salt?” Mayo Clinic, January 17, 2013, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/sea-salt/faq-20058512.
Umesh Kapil, “Health Consequences of Iodine Deficiency,” Sultan Qaboos Univ Med J., December 2007; 7(3):267-272, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3074887/.
S.L. Drake and M.A. Drake, “Comparison of Salty Taste and Time Intensity of Sea and Land Salts from Around the World,” Journal of Sensory Studies, February 2011; 26(1):25-34, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1745-459X.2010.00317.x/abstract.
Molly Triffin, “Does Himalayan Pink Salt Hold Up to All the Health Hype?” Yahoo, April 15, 2015, https://www.yahoo.com/health/does-himalayan-pink-salt-hold-up-to-the-healthy-116323252232.html.