In a word, yes. But not all sea salts are created equal. Let’s start with the fact that ordinary processed table salt is not good for you and should be avoided. Unfortunately, many sea salts are put through similar refining processes and therefore are equally hazardous to your health.
Probably among the most desirable sea salts come to us from the Brittany coast in France. There the salt farmers have been harvesting salt from the sea for centuries. “Sel gris” (French meaning “gray salt”) is a light gray color and is generally packaged without any processing.
Another superior salt from the same region is “fleur de sel” (flowers of salt), a white salt whose crystals look like tiny snowflakes. Fleur de sel is white because its crystals never touch the clay beds in which seawater lies. Master farmers harvest it from the water’s surface when winds are calm and the weather is warm. But buyer beware—it’s much pricier than the gray variety.
Just reading about it makes you feel good, doesn’t it? But although sea salt can certainly inspire lyrical prose, why is it better for you than plain old table salt? Let’s see if we can uncover some clarifying facts.
- You need more, not less
- It’s all in the processing
- Mind those minerals
- Taste buds tell the tale
You need more, not less
The human body needs salt, or sodium, to survive. Sodium contains electrolytes, minerals that dissolve in water and carry electrical charges. Pure water does not conduct electricity, but water containing salt does. Because they have an electrical charge, electrolytes move through your cells, carrying nutrients with them and removing waste products and excess water at the same time.
Salt has gotten a bad rap in recent years, because mainstream medical experts have decided that its overuse contributes to high blood pressure and aggravates other physical problems, such as heart and kidney disease and premenstrual syndrome. The American Heart Association says salt intake should be limited to 1,500 mg. per day (that’s less than one teaspoon). But is that enough?
Digging a little deeper, we find that there is only one definitive study to support the idea that salt causes or aggravates hypertension. And then we find that the same study was based on a diet that was also low in fructose (sugar). There are subsequent studies which show that heart disease, hypertension, and related maladies are more likely to be caused by an excess of sugar and refined carbohydrates than by salt.
It’s all in the processing
Table salt comes out of the ground, mined from salt deposits below the surface of the earth. Yes, there really are salt mines out there—and you thought they were just talking about your office! Once it’s brought to the surface, the salt is processed to remove impurities and give it its fine texture. All the minerals are stripped away. Chemicals are added to prevent caking, along with a little bleach to keep it white. And it shows up in your supermarket, where you can buy it for about 50 cents a pound.
Sea salt, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. It is harvested, one way or another, from the sea. It can cost anywhere from 80 cents a pound for more simple varieties to $40 a pound for really exotic Himalayan salt crystals. And the dirty little secret is that some of the sea salt is just as processed as table salt, complete with additives added and minerals removed. So what’s a health-conscious gourmet to do?
Mind those minerals
Look for unprocessed or unrefined sea salt. (Hint: if it looks perfect in the package, it’s probably processed.) Unprocessed salts retain trace minerals that are good for the human body, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, copper, and iron. Sea salt often looks coarse, but can also be fine or flaky. It can be white, pink, black, gray or a combination of colors, depending on where it comes from and which minerals it contains.
Your body needs the minerals that unprocessed sea salt contains. They carry nutrients into and out of your cells. They improve brain function, muscle function, and even maintain and regulate your blood pressure. Deficiency of these minerals can cause a whole laundry list of problems, ranging from loss of energy and appetite to muscle cramps, hallucinations, and seizures.
Taste buds tell the tale
It’s those minerals that contribute to the taste and the wide variety of sea salts found on the market today. Himalayan salts are mostly pink, getting their color from copper, iron and carotene. Hawaiian black salt contains traces of charcoal and lava. The varieties and blends are virtually endless, so feel free to taste test and find what you like.
Chefs and culinary artisans like sea salt for a number of reasons. It has a crunchy texture that adds a bit of pop to an ordinary dish. It gives a nice crusty finish to grilled or broiled meats and fish. If you want a finer texture for cooking or baking, you can give it a quick spin in a coffee grinder (minus the coffee, of course.)
Salt is essential to maintaining a healthy body. Chemically speaking, the sodium content of sea salt and table salt is virtually the same. But if you want to make the healthier choice, put a little sel gris or fleur de sel on your table. Remember, the less processed almost any food is, the better it is for you.