Sea Salt Isn’t Better Than Regular Salt- Understanding Sodium Intake
A common example of deliberate misinformation in the food industry today is remarketing items that have been branded as unhealthy under the guise of ‘organic’ or ‘natural.’ One of the usual suspects in this game of marketing smoke and mirrors is the heavily misguided (but immensely profitable) proposal that sea salt is not only better than regular table salt, but that it is actually good for you. It’s an alluring prospect- that you can continue to eat salty foods with impunity thanks to the availability of sea salt- a natural and wholesome alternative to ‘processed’ table salt. However great this may sound, those sea salt laden chips are just as bad for you as chips made with regular salt- in fact it may actually be worse for your health. Studies continually show that consumers will increase consumption of a product if they continually presented with information that paints it as a ‘healthier alternative.’ This holds true regardless of how valid those claims may be but is an important point that we all need to bear in mind when making decisions along the supermarket aisle. In this article we will explore the chemistry of sea salt and table salt and find out why neither of them has any place in the cupboards of those serious about optimum health.
What Is Table Salt- Understanding Sodium Chloride
Table salt as we know it is what we get when two very volatile elements come together to create the staple food additive sodium chloride (NaCl). Sodium is a highly reactive metal given to bursting into flames whereas chlorine (from which chloride is derived) in gaseous form is can be extremely poisonous. It is ironic that together they come together to create a food additive that has been an integral part of our history for several thousand years. There are many different kinds of salts but sodium chloride is the one that we eat mostly and the one responsible for the taste that we call ‘salty’. Chloride and sodium, the two components of salt are required by all known forms of life on earth. Chloride is essential for respiration and digestion and sodium is an essential mineral that our body is incapable of producing itself and so we need to obtain it from the foods we eat. Sodium helps our cells transport oxygen from the air we breathe and nutrients from the foods we eat. It helps with the transmission of nerve impulses that allow us the control our muscles both consciously (as is the case with moving your arms or walking) and automatically (as in the case of the muscle contractions of our heart). Sodium also helps our body maintain blood volume and regulate the balance of water in our cells. An adult human being contains about 250 grams of salt  which is about enough to fill three or four of your salt shakers but we are constantly losing sodium through sweat, urine and other bodily functions.
Now as wonderful as sodium chloride may sound, we only need sodium in small quantities- 2,300 milligrams to as low as 1,500 milligrams depending on your age and ethnicity. Unfortunately most people here in the United States take in anywhere from 2,700 to as much as 7000 milligrams a day- with over 75% of that sodium coming from the salt added to processed foods. Considering that a teaspoon of salt contains just about 2,400 milligrams of sodium and that our taste buds adapt over time to high levels of sodium by not recognizing salt laden foods as tasting salty it is no surprise that it is easy to overdo it. Unfortunately, long term studies of the general population have consistently found that the lower your salt intake is, the lower your blood pressure will be- which in turn lowers the risk of hypertension, strokes and heart attacks.[4,5,6] Excess sodium has also been linked to an increase in the incidence of gastric cancer, kidney stones and osteoporosis. (See my article on Osteoporosis here).
Top Sources Of Excess Salt In Our Diet
The top sources of sodium here in America for everyone regardless of age, race or gender are:
- Yeast breads- the highest source of sodium for non-Hispanic Whites
- Chicken mixed dishes- the highest source among non-Hispanic Blacks
- Pizza (highest source among 2-18 year olds)
- Pasta and pasta dishes &
- Cold cuts.
Other notably high sources of sodium in the US diet are:
- Hamburgers-a major source of sodium for males aged 14-18 years old
- Mexican mixed dishes- the highest source for Mexican Americans
- Grain based desserts
- Soups- a major source for those aged 51 years and older
- Condiments (such as ketchup and mustard)
- Salad dressing
- Ready to eat cereals
All of these foods together add nearly 2,000 milligrams of sodium per person per day and makes up about 56% of the sodium ingested daily. Many of them are instantly recognizable as being high in sodium, but many such as breads and ready to eat cereals are overlooked in terms of how much sodium they contain. Yeast breads top the list of high sodium foods and not surprisingly most of the so called ‘healthy’ or ‘organic’ breads today use sea salt as one of its natural ingredients. Another notable source of sodium comes from potato chips. A 2009 survey from the marketing firm Mintel found that half of kids, teenagers and young adults aged 18-24 reported that they ate salty snacks like potato chips five times a week or more, with the frequency of consumption for older adults being only slightly less. Like the so called organic breads, sea salt is also used in what are packaged as healthier potato chips- an ingredient shift that does nothing to lower the sodium content but it does go a long way in sustaining the sales of these multi-billion dollar markets.
Sea Salt- A Work Around Solution to The Problem Of Reduced Sodium Intake
The official stance shared unanimously by all major dietary organizations is that everyone in the general population, children and adults should lower their sodium intake as much as possible by consuming fewer processed foods that are high in sodium and by using little or no salt when preparing or eating foods. That’s not a call to eat less salt- it’s a call to eliminate it completely from our daily diets. Studies show that adding salt to foods makes us eat more- which is the prime directive of any food company focused on increasing profits and survival in a overly abundant food market (See my article on the Economics of Food for a detailed overview). Faced with such dire health advisories calling for restrictions in the use of products that have allowed for increased consumption of processed foods- what else could the industry do but create a seemingly ‘healthy alternative’ by heavily marketing forms of salt not traditionally thought of as unhealthy. The work around for the problem came in the form of sea salt- which most people in the general population see as being distinctly different from regular table salt. It comes down to our inherent inclinations towards association. The sea and the ocean are held by most of us as something that represents nature and purity- thus we unconsciously react to the image of sea salt mined from the life giving sea by ‘traditional’ mom-and-pop type salt makers. It’s an easy image to fall for- as given the nostalgic allure of age old tradition versus modern machine based process which we all identify with as being somehow less healthy- but it’s simply good marketing. Huge food corporations like Cargill and Morton own most of the saltworks in the industry, and they make most of the sea salt you see on the market as well. If that wasn’t bad enough, sea salt is chemically identical to regular table salt and just as potentially harmful.
Sea Salt- Understanding How It Is Made
All salt that we use for food is produced one of three ways- from mining naturally occurring rock deposits, vacuum evaporation and solar evaporation. In rock salt mining, salt is mined from large underground deposits and is purified and processed into the products we know as table salt. Most of the table salt we use for foods comes from vacuum evaporation- which is done by dissolving rock salt with water to create a brine solution. This solution is then pumped into a vacuum evaporator- which removes all the air and boils off the water leaving behind pure salt. Additives such as calcium silicate are then added to keep the salt from clumping and so that it flows freely when poured. Potassium iodide is added as well in most salts as a dietary source of iodine- with some dextrose (sugar) added as well to keep the iodide stable. This creates the table salt that we have known for decades- sea salt however comes from a slightly different source, but isn’t necessarily as different as what most term ‘processed salt.’
Sea salt comes, of course, from evaporated seawater which contains about 2.7% sodium chloride. It also contains small amounts of calcium, magnesium, and sulfate ions- elements found in many commercially available sea salt products which gives sea salt a taste that many describe as distinctively different from that of regular table salt. With solar evaporation, seawater is corralled into shallow ponds and dried by the action of the sun and wind to create layers of highly concentrated sodium chloride. This salt is then rinsed to remove impurities and then dried again- and in some cases processed via vacuum evaporation to create a commercially usable sea salt. The resulting salt is about 99.5% sodium chloride and is by no means different in any way than table salt by any stretch of the imagination, except that it cost a bit more and may taste a bit different due to the presence of other minerals and given the difference in texture. Free flowing agents are not usually added to sea salt so it tends to be more of a rock form than what you would normally expect from table salt.
That being said there is no difference in negative health outcomes from using sea salt over regular table salt.[8,9] While marketing may extoll the ‘natural process’ of solar salt extraction from the sea or the ‘nutritious trace minerals’ found in sea salt, the fact of the matter remains that it’s still sodium chloride and the extra minerals here and there don’t do anything to offset the potential health risks of having too much of it in your diet. It is a simply a brilliant marketing ploy that not only give manufacturers the option of pricing their product higher (sea salt costs significantly more than regular salt) but also one that has influenced many to keep adding salt to their foods or to purchasing products made with sea salt.
Arguments For Not Restricting Salt Intake
There are some who argue that we need salt as part of our diet for optimal health, however such logic does not stand up to anthropological observations of societies where salt is not part of the human diet. Such do not have no ill effects from not consuming salt, nor do they have the high rates of hypertension and heart disease seen here in the West where sodium consumption is excessive. The African Masai tribes who consume a predominantly carnivorous diet get their sodium from the animals that they consume (blood included). On the other end of the scale the Yanomami Indians who eat a purely vegetarian diet with very low sodium intake throughout the course of their lives suffer no ill effects and in fact have no cases of hypertension or obesity. It should be noted that in both cultures potassium intake is much higher as well than in developed countries. Those with higher potassium intakes tend to have lower blood pressure and excessive sodium intake as is common in this part of the world, can significantly increase your body’s requirements for potassium.
Studies have shown that in developed countries blood pressure increases with age, a phenomenon starting early in childhood and continually increasing thereafter. Given this attempts to moderate blood pressure increases are important at all stages of life. High blood pressure is an established risk factor for cardiovascular disease and systematic reviews of numerous studies have found clear links between sodium intake and blood pressure increases. Most importantly they show a consistent pattern of lower blood pressure among groups with lower sodium intakes which makes it hard to argue the logic of sea salt or any other salty food as part of your diet, especially when statistics show that nearly one out of three Americans have high blood pressure and that a quarter of the population is already pre-hypertensive.[11,12]
The good news is that while switching to a low salt diet intake may seem like a daunting task, after only two to four weeks your taste buds begin to adjust and you lose the taste for salted foods. Over time foods with even trace amounts of added salt will be overwhelming and you will find yourself with a preference towards foods with no added salt. You will be surprised how great foods can taste without salt and how better you will feel overall.
Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Visit his official website at www.naturallyintense.net to learn more about his personal training services.
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3. Report of the DGAC on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
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7. Sources of Sodium Among the US Population, 2005-06. Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods Branch. Applied Research Program. National Cancer Institute.
8. Zeratsky, Katherine (27 August 2009). “Is sea salt better for your health than table salt?”. Mayoclinic.com. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Retrieved 22 April 2011.
9. Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Health and Wellbeing (23 November 2010) – Rae Fry and Professor Bruce Neal – November 2010
10.. Mancilha-Carvalho JJ, Albuquerque de Souza e Silva N. “Yanomami Indians in the INTERSALT study”. Arq Bras Cardiol 2003
11. National Center for Health Statistics. 2008.
12. Lloyd-Jones D, Adams RJ, Brown TM, et al. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2010 Update. A Report from the American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Circulation. 2010