I consider my diet on the “healthy” end of the spectrum – I buy organic produce, I choose wheat over white, and I eat a mostly whole-foods, plant-based diet that’s almost completely void of processed foods.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that table salts – even the kosher salt I used to season my soups and curries, and bring out the natural sweetness of roasted veggies – is one of the most processed foods you can buy.
Before I go into the differences between natural salts and standard table salts, let’s first explore more about salt in general.
The Role of Salts in Health
Salt has an undeserved reputation of being all-around unhealthy, but in truth, a moderate amount of salt is needed for your body’s primary functions. In fact, a lack of salt in the diet can result in health problems just like an overabundance of it.
Made up of sodium and chloride ions, salt is the main source of these nutrients in the human diet. Sodium is an essential player in nerve and muscle functions, as well as fluid regulation within our bodies. It also helps maintain blood pressure and volume.
Chloride is the second element that makes up salt, and its ions serve as electrolytes that have a crucial role in regulating blood pH and pressure, as well as being an important component of human stomach acid.
So all those Gatorade commercials that talk about the importance of electrolytes? It’s not just marketing – we need to replace our electrolytes when we sweat them out, and usually, that replenishment comes from salt.
Too Little Sodium
Too little sodium can result in health problems like hyponatremia, or low blood sodium. It is considered a medical emergency and can result in serious side effects like loss of consciousness, seizures, and coma.
If your sodium is depleting slowly, it may manifest itself in symptoms like weakness, nausea, confusion, and muscle cramps. Getting enough sodium is essential for active people, or those working or living in hot conditions.
Too Much Sodium
On the flip side, too much sodium can also result in health problems, but these tend to be slower to come on than hyponatremia – these are the things you hear about the adverse long-term effects of a high-sodium diet.
When you consume too much sodium, your kidneys struggle to keep up with processing. To dilute the excess sodium in the blood, your body holds onto water. Ever get puffy fingers and feel bloated after a super salty meal? That’s your body trying to maintain the right ratio of salt to water in your blood.
This retention increases the blood volume in the body, which ultimately creates more work for your heart, and more strain on your blood vessels. Over time, this stiffens the blood vessels and can lead to health risks such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Groups with Salt Sensitivities
People over 50, those with elevated blood pressure, people with diabetes, and African-Americans tend to be at high risk for developing health problems related to salt consumptions.
Before adding or changing the amount of salt in your diet, be sure to consult your doctor.
So How Much Salt Do I Need?
When it comes to sodium, it’s all about balance – both too much and too little can result in undesirable health issues and side effects.
For healthy adults, The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 2,300mg per day, with the optimal amount being no more than 1,500mg per day.
Regarding volume, this equates to about ½-1 teaspoon of salt per day. For very active persons, such as endurance athletes or team sports players, this amount should increase depending on your level of activity.
What’s Wrong with Regular Table Salt?
While salt itself is a natural product, table salt is far from it. Whereas “gourmet” salts, like sea salt, are harvested through the evaporation of salty water (we’ll talk more about this later), table salt is mined from underground salt deposits.
After being extracted, the salt is processed to remove “impurities” and create a uniform white color – this leaves you with mostly sodium chloride (in an unnatural form), as the processing removes any and all nutrients from the salt.
Once table salt’s trace minerals and nutrients are removed, other ingredients are usually added, such as anti-clumping agents and iodine.
Not all salt has to be some ultra-refined, processed product. Those harvested naturally, such as Himalayan and sea salts, still retain many of their trace minerals and nutrients. Because these are usually processed through evaporation, the salt’s natural state is left intact, and there are no additives combined with the finished product.
It’s important to note that other salts, such as Himalayan or sea salts, are not low-sodium alternatives to table salt. All these options contain roughly the same amount of sodium per serving, so if you need to cut down on your sodium consumption for health purposes, keep this in mind.
Our Preferred Forms of Natural, Unrefined Salts
You don’t need to forego salt when you’re choosing an all-natural, whole foods diet. By choosing from one of our favorite salts below, you’re still consuming the naturally occurring minerals and nutrients from the salt and the sodium your body needs to stay healthy and functioning.
1. Himalayan Pink Salt
Himalayan pink salt is getting a lot of attention from the health-conscious crowd, and with good reason!
In addition to its gorgeous rose-like color, Himalayan pink salt contains over 80 minerals and trace elements, making it the most nutritious salt you can use. The salt comes from the Punjab region of Pakistan, about 190 miles from the Himalayas.
Himalayan salt is incredibly clean, as it is typically mined by hand instead of going through the cumbersome processing of table salt. Whereas table salt is 97-99% sodium chloride, Himalayan salt is only about 87% sodium chloride, the rest being comprised of other healthy minerals and elements.
In addition to being a clean, unprocessed food, Himalayan salt also has a number of health benefits. These include regulating sleep, supporting libido, and promoting vascular health.
Along with its gorgeous pink color, these health benefits make Himalayan salt my go-to salt for everyday cooking.
Himalayan Brands we like:
2. Sea Salt
As the name suggests, sea salt comes from oceans or salinized lakes. Sea salt is, generally speaking, minimally processed, as the salt crystals are isolated by letting the water evaporate away.
It’s a good choice for those who want to eat as close to nature as possible, and who benefit from the many minerals that occur naturally in these salts.
While you can purchase sea salt in a fine texture that blends easily into dishes, sea salt is often sought after for its unique, coarse texture. The large crystals can take the form of small pyramids or crispy flakes, and add a delightful crunch that brings out the natural sweetness of many savory foods.
It’s my opinion that sea salt is the ideal partner for dark chocolate!
When looking for real sea salt, beware of imitators! Just like some “wheat” bread is just processed white flour with brown coloring, there is “sea salt” out there that isn’t the real deal.
Real, authentic sea salt should never be stark white – the minerals in real sea salt give it a beautiful color that can be any combination of green, blue, and gray (each batch is unique!). If you come across large, coarse “sea salt” that is bright white, with no sign of other colors, it’s probably not authentic sea salt.
An example of authentic sea salt coloring:
Photo credit: leavesofhealing.com.au
Sea Salt Brands we like:
Healthy Salts for Your Kitchen
In moderation, salt is an important part of the human diet and provides essential nutrients we need for optimal performance. However, there are plenty of options out there that are far less processed and much more nutritious than regular table salt.
Whether you’re new to healthy, whole-foods-based diets or a longtime vegan veteran, consider swapping your highly refined table salt for one that’s been naturally processed and is high in minerals and trace elements.
In addition to bringing out the natural flavors of your food, these salts can keep your body healthy and provide you with support. Treat yourself to the salts of the earth, and your body and mind will thank you!