Did you know that if you avoid salt entirely, you may also be at risk for health problems? The healthiest salt options will be explored here so that you can make informed decisions.
The discussion of salt should be an easy one. It’s bad for you, right?
Headlines about salt are quite conflicting. Two headlines from reputable sources taking polar views on the topic of salt. For example, a headline from Harvard Health, states that salt increases our death risk, the next headline from New York Times, claims that sodium may help us lose weight.
I’ve worked in healthcare for a long time and can tell you that both are probably right in their own way, but neither mutually exclusive.
Salt: Is there a time and a place for it? Absolutely. Does it cause health problems for some? Definitely.
We don’t live in a bubble where a food is either good or evil and absolute rules apply to all. Nutrients and foods help balance out each other, even have synergistic effects with other nutrients when used correctly.
What is Salt?
Salt provides two essential nutrients: sodium and chloride, which makes up our collective definition of a salt. Other nutrients, like trace minerals may also be present, but vary depending on the type of salt you use.
Sodium and chloride help:
- Muscles contract
- Brain function
- The heart pump
Natural salts can contain other elements that are rare in our diet.
Salt is a Flavor Enhancer
Salt enhances the flavor of food and makes almost any food more enjoyable. If I had to cut back on salt in my life by a lot, it might really change my world view of food. I feel for my patients who need to.
In this blog, I will cover some important facts about:
- The good and the bad of various salt types
- Risks of salt
- Benefits of salt
- Conditions which increase need for salt
- Nutrient balance
Pros and Cons of Salt Types
Dangers of Table Salt
- Table salt has anti-caking agents, which can be scary. Morton’s iodized salt contains calcium silicate and dextrose
- For more about calcium silicate, click here
- Table salt is refined, meaning all trace minerals are removed
- Junk foods and packaged foods use it primarily
- Refined salts make up almost 75% of the salt in people’s diet in the United States
Benefits of Table Salt
- It has more iodine, a nutrient that is often deficient
- It is inexpensive
Sea Salt Basics
Sea salt comes from the ocean, and many varieties are available on the market today. These include:
- Black lava sea salt
- Hawaiian sea salt
- Smoked sea salt
- Maldon sea salt
- Light Grey Celtic sea salt
- Smoked sea salt
For details about each of these salts, a post by Carolyn Williams, RD is very helpful.
Drawbacks to Sea Salt
- It is more expensive than table salt.
- Can contain small amounts of scary, heavy metals, due to ocean pollution, such as lead
- Natural sea salts have little to no iodine
- Microplastic is found in sea salts (1)
A recent research project measured 17 types of salt from various countries were measure for content of microplastics (2).
A total of 72 plastics and contaminants were found and some could not be identified.
The study concluded that 36 types of plastics could be consumed from eating salt alone in 1 year.
However, the total load of microplastics is still “low”.
We also get microplastics from drinking water and many other foods, especially if they are stored in plastic containers.
Sea Salt Benefits
Sea salt can have great flavor, so less is needed than when using table salt.
Trace minerals are present, such as potassium, iron, and zinc.
Some countries of origin for sea salt are likely safest: France, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Portugal
Sea salt, including Celtic, have 5% less total sodium than refined table salt.
Himalayan Salt and Mined Salts
Many areas of the world have salt mines. The most famous is the area of the world called the Himalayas. Other popular mined salts are Redmond salt from Salt Lake area.
Himalayan Salt Cons
Does not contain much, if any, iodine, a nutrient that is critical for thyroid health.
May have some dangerous heavy metals.
Himalayan Salt Benefits
- Himalayan salt has 85 different types minerals, making it the most mineral-rich salts
- Has unique, appetizing flavor
- Himalayan salt does not have microplastics because it is from a mine, not the sea.
- Heavy metal content is in such a trace amount, that it probably doesn’t have adverse health effects
- Heavy metals may be balanced out by presence of other beneficial minerals
Balancing Salt in Your Diet
It is important to focus on getting more minerals in your diet from foods like vegetables and whole foods. See my magnesium blog for more information.
People do swear by natural salts and health benefits such as improved energy. If you love it, use it, barring any health restrictions.
But be sure to get an iodine-rich food source in your diet if you choose sea salt or Himalayan salt. This could include kelp, seaweed, shellfish, or a supplement of multi-minerals.
Natural salts also add flavor. Because of this, you could end up using less total salt and eating less than you would eat of refined table salt.
To add some more real flavor, try out some heat and spices.
More research needs to be conducted to determine optimal amounts of salt and types of salt in the diet (3).
Iodine Salt Considerations
Iodine deficiency is a really big problem, even for your heart.
An estimated 75% of people in the United States have inadequate intake (4).
The trend to move away from iodized salt and to eat more packaged foods, which do not have added iodine, isn’t helping matters.
I’m not saying iodized salt is the best choice. But make sure you get iodine from another source or two in your diet: it is critical for health.
An important tip about cooking with salt; iodine vaporizes off as it cooks, making it disappear from your food.
I really like this blog by Life Extension about the Silent Epidemic of Iodine Deficiency. Check it out to learn more about this important nutrient.
When too little salt in the diet is a problem
Salt can be dangerous in too high of amounts, but many people do not realize that salt can be important for reducing issues with the following conditions:
- Insulin resistance (5)
- Food addiction
- Physically demanding jobs
- Heat exposure
- Certain adrenal diseases
- Certain kinds of low blood pressure
Conditions harmed by too much salt
Many health concerns benefit from a reduction in added salt, but especially benefit from cutting back on packaged foods due to their sodium content. Those conditions include:
- Congestive heart failure
- Open heart surgery
- Kidney failure
- Sleep apnea
- Salt-sensitive patients with high blood pressure
Sodium Losses from Sweat
Sweating, due to physical demands of exercise and work load, can cause large amounts of sodium loss. This can be upwards of 10-15 grams of salt over the period of a day of work (3).
When you sweat, you also lose important minerals like iodine, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Make sure you have a mineral-rich diet and supplement when needed.
A rule of thumb from Livestrong: for every quart you replace for hydration from exercise, add back 1000 mg of sodium. Unless you eat too much sodium already.
Limiting sodium for an athlete or person working heavily is probably a mistake.
How about a sauna? Or a very hot bath? Ever notice how much you can sweat? Be aware of sodium losses here too.
Sauna use is linked to vast health benefits. 4-7 days a week for at least 19 minutes reduced cardiovascular death risk by 50% (3).
A caveat: Our bodies acclimate to heavy sweating, and reduce the amount of sodium lost over time. But you will always continue to lose sodium when you sweat to some degree.
Food Addiction Advice
What do my colleagues say? David Avram Wolfe, RD, an expert in food addiction recovery, says, “It is best to stay away from table salt, especially if you identify with sugar/sweet cravings. It contains Dextrose, which is a simple sugar. I always encourage my patients to use real unadulterated sea salt, the dirtier the better.”
- Skip the packaged, processed foods
- Grab some Himalayan salt or unadulterated sea salt from the regions with less toxic burden
- Add in some kelp and seaweed to your diet for iodine
- Eat more fruits and vegetables to help offset negative effects of sodium
- If your doctor tells you to limit sodium, please do
- Users of Himalayan salt state that it tastes saltier than table salt, so use less.
If you can’t find yourself down the seaweed path, supplement your diet with proper amounts of minerals, including iodine.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.