There’s table salt, sea salt and that fancy one from the Himalayas. Is one better than the other? And how much of it can we eat, even if it is artisan salt? Here’s everything you need to know about the white stuff.
First thing’s first. What is salt? Well, salt is a natural mineral, composed of sodium and chloride. Salt is essential to life. The body can’t produce it itself, and without it our muscles and nervous system wouldn’t work. The same goes for animals too! So salt is something we actively have to consume, and if we didn’t, we would eventually die. Salt is used for countless other things too, from making paper to de-icing roads to producing industrial chemicals to preserving our food. It’s precious stuff.
And its history backs this up. There was a time when people were paid in salt rather than money (the word ‘salary’ comes from the latin word for salt) and monopolies over salt routes and salt mines have been the cause of wars for centuries. Who knew?
These days, salt and how we eat it is the subject of a different debate. Headlines warning us of the dangers of over-consumption have lead to the belief that salt is, on the contrary, best avoided. And to some extent that’s true. Eating too much leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. It’s recommended we eat only 6g per day – about a teaspoon – and that includes all the hidden salt that’s already present in many foods we buy, from bread to ketchup, pasta sauce to bacon.
Too much salt isn’t good for us. But rather than demonise the salt itself, it’s probably best to take a more mindful approach to how we consume it.
That could start with limiting the amount of cheap processed foods we eat, which are packed with salt to add flavour and to make them last longer on our shelves. Instead, cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients and adding salt ourselves, more mindfully, could provide the answer.
Which leads to the next debate. The type of salt we use. There’s table salt and sea salt and that fancy stuff from the Himalayas. Is one better than the other?
Processed foods almost always use table salt. Table salt is often made by drilling into underground sea beds, pumping out the salt water and moving it to purification plants where the salt is refined into pure sodium chloride. This process strips away naturally present trace minerals, such as magnesium, calcium or potassium. Anti-caking agents are added to stop the salt from clumping and sometimes other additives, such as iodine.
Deposits of rock salt are usually the remains of inland seas which evaporated centuries ago. As a result they’re buried deep below the ground. The salt is harvested by drilling or blasting the rock face, and crushing the salt into pieces. Himalayan salt is a type of pink rock salt, found in Pakistani salt mines, about 186 miles from the Himalayas, and is said to be packed with healthy minerals.
Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater, using the sun and wind, or indoor heating methods, and harvesting the salt that remains. It doesn’t go through the rigorous processing that table salt goes through, trace minerals remain intact and no extra chemicals are added.
When it comes to health?
Chemically, there’s actually not much difference. All of these salts contain more than 99% sodium chloride. Nutritionists claim that to be healthy we need such little amounts of salt that the presence – or lack – of trace minerals will hardly affect our overall health.
But there is a difference. The difference is in how it tastes…
Artisan sea salts, from British-based Essex’ Maldon and Anglesey’s Halen Môn to Himalayan rock salt, are undoubtedly tastier in contrast to the more bland, and often bitter, table salts out there. Artisan salt is more expensive, but their superior flavour means a little goes a lot further, and that can only be a plus when we’re being mindful of our salt intake.
And the environment?
There’s also the argument that by buying small-batch artisan salt, we’re not just buying from businesses that support local economies, we’re also supporting businesses that are working to minimise their impact on local ecosystems. Halen Môn in North Wales prides itself on its low energy costs, using solar panels and heat exchangers to evaporate sea water as efficiently as possible. The resulting steam is turned into distilled water and sold on. In contrast, large processing plants have huge energy costs as a result of drilling into salt beds, extracting and refining salt for us to eat.
So in a nutshell?
In terms of the literal health benefits, the difference between one salt and another is marginal. But if we’re thinking about approaching how we eat in a more mindful, conscious way, artisan salt from seawater are both tastier – and therefore you need less to flavour your food – and tend to be harvested in a way that has far less of an impact on local ecosystems than highly processed table salt. It seems that it’s worth spending those extra pennies for what is ultimately a better quality product.