Salt: A Buyer's Guide
It’s hard to believe that something as simple as salt can actually be confusing to buy. Seriously, next time you are in the baking aisle shopping for brown sugar, check out the vast array of salt staring back at you from that bottom shelf. Contradictory information abounds on the internet about not only what kind of salt to use but also whether to choose iodized versus non-iodized. Here’s a simplified look at one of the most basic ingredients in everyday cooking, how it affects our bodies and which kind is the healthiest.
Despite its bad rap for attributing to high blood pressure and diabetes when consumed in large quantities, salt is actually a necessity in our diet. Made up of sodium and chloride, salt provides minerals which help the body with several functions needed for living. Yes, we need salt to live. Those tiny cubes not only regulate the water balance and osmotic pressure in our body, they also help the blood carry carbon dioxide, assist with potassium absorption and aide in digestion. In fact, salt helps the body with many functions including nerve conduction, the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine, electrolyte balance and maintaining hydration during exercise.
With all the negativity surrounding salt in the American culture, let’s not forget the health benefits salt provides. Like most foods we enjoy, moderation is the key to reaping the benefits instead of doing harm. Now that we understand what salt does for our bodies, let’s take a look at the salt varieties available on supermarket shelves.
Table salt is the most popular ingredient found in salt shakers on kitchen counters and restaurant tables all across America. We cook, bake, sprinkle and season with it on a daily basis. To harvest, underground salt mines are flooded with water, the water mixes with the salt in the mine to form a brine, and then the water is heated to make it evaporate, leaving behind little cubes of salt. The process of making the brine and then super-heating the mixture for evaporation removes any trace minerals (such as iodine and magnesium) which may be in the salt so that the cubes are stripped down to just two minerals: sodium and chloride. Manufacturers then replace the iodine using potassium iodide, but we’ll talk more about that later. Dextrose is also added to stabilize the iodine. However, dextrose affects the color so a bleaching agent is then used to turn the salt white.
Next, kosher salt is also made from brine much like table salt, but kosher salt brine is constantly raked during the evaporation process, creating a larger grain. Many chefs only use kosher salt, touting its flaky texture and mild taste superior to that of the less potent table salt. That means more kosher salt is needed to equal the saltiness of table salt (see conversion table). The large grain is ideal for curing meats as it is able to draw blood out of the meat more efficiently without dissolving (how kosher salt got its name, from its ability to kosher meats). Compared to the tiny cubes of table salt, the kosher variety is less refined and often contains no additives, although some manufacturers do add stabilizers or anti-caking agents, so checking the ingredient list is important if avoiding additives in your diet is a priority.
Finally, sea salt is just what the name implies: salt from the sea or ocean. It is made from evaporating ocean or sea water – nature’s brine, if you please. If it’s truly unprocessed, sea salt can contain up to 90 different trace minerals depending upon the region of the world where the salt was harvested. Trace minerals can include iodine, fluoride, magnesium and potassium. Just as the oceans vary around the world, sea salt comes in numerous varieties, each used for different applications. Hailing from all over the world including France, Hawaii, Portugal and Italy, the various kinds of sea salt may differ in color from light pink to grey depending upon the mineral content. Since it’s less refined, sea salt is stronger than table and kosher salt so less is needed to flavor or season foods.
Now that we’ve discussed the types of salt available, let’s explore iodized versus non-iodized salt. As mentioned earlier, table salt is highly refined and stripped of additional minerals. In the 1920s, salt manufacturers began adding potassium iodide to table salt in an effort to reduce the incidence of Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD). IDD, once an epidemic in certain regions of the country, can cause mental retardation, miscarriage, goiters, brain damage in infants and can impair growth and development of children. Conversely, too much iodine in the body is also harmful. Up to 75% of the iodine in our bodies is stored in our thyroid, the gland responsible for regulating metabolism and producing some of our hormones. Consequently, too much iodine can cause hormonal imbalances and metabolic and immune disorders. Another complication is hyperthyroidism in which the thyroid gland is overactive. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure, heart arrhythmia, hand tremors, nervousness, anxiety and insomnia.
Since the introduction of iodized salt, IDD has been almost completely eradicated in America. However, some believe that with a healthy, well-balanced diet, the average American gets enough iodine naturally from diet alone. Sources of iodine include sea vegetables like seaweed and kelp, milk, yogurt, eggs, some cheeses, fish, and shellfish. Iodine is also found in unlikely products like cough expectorants, antiseptics and certain drugs like sulphonamides, dopamine, lithium, steroids, aspirin and some heart and diabetes medications. Because iodine is plentiful in many of the foods we eat, some experts fear we may be getting too much iodine by consuming iodized salt. Others still maintain the belief that iodized salt is needed despite the average American diet to prevent IDD. The best way to be certain about your own iodine levels is to talk to your doctor and get tested.
The three most popular kinds of salt – table, kosher and sea – come in wide varieties at the supermarket. Many mainstream companies have included additives into their products – even sea salt, despite its reputation for being pure – so check ingredient labels if avoiding chemical additives is important to you and your family. Remember to enjoy salt in moderation which is best done by avoiding processed foods (often loaded with sodium) and seasoning your cooking creations modestly. But most of all, enjoy that ingredient health experts have taught us for years to fear: salt.
For more information, visit:
Salt: Don’t Ban it Entirely
Why Buy Iodized Salt?
Kosher Salt: Wikipedia
Sea Salt: Wikipedia
Sea Salt Nutritional Facts
Copyright 2011, Amber Grim, Whole Foods for Whole Families