Just like sugar, there are so many different varieties of salt that can add flavor and texture to your meals. And just like coconut sugar is often touted as a better choice than granulated sugar, there are gourmet salts that claim to be healthier than regular table salt.
Here, find out how salt stacks up, if any of them are really healthy, and if you should even be using the salt shaker in the first place.
Sodium and chloride are essential nutrients.
Salt is a mineral made up of sodium chloride, two essential nutrients. Sodium, the chief ion used to maintain the volume of fluid on the outside of our cells helps to balance fluid and electrolytes in our bodies, said Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Pittsburgh, Penn. and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
Sodium also helps to maintain blood pressure, acid-base balance, muscle contraction and nerve transmission, all important biological functions.
Although excess sodium intake is directly linked with high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney disease, some research suggests that it may not be as bad as we think. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that salt intake wasn’t linked to cardiovascular disease, heart disease or death in older adults.
Nevertheless, although our bodies need sodium, getting more in your diet won’t do anything for your health.
Even though most of us know to cut back on the amount of salt we’re cooking with and sprinkling on our food, most people are still getting way too much sodium that’s hidden in take-out, restaurant fare and processed foods— this accounts for about 90 percent of the sodium in our diets, said Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
In addition, those processed foods are usually not as nutritious as whole foods, meaning individuals are likely missing out on potassium, magnesium and calcium, all essential nutrients that also counteract sodium’s effects.
When it comes to eating a healthy diet, experts agree sodium should be consumed in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines of Americans recommend limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams a day. Those who have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, are 51 or older or African American (of any age) should reduce their intake to 1,500 milligrams a day.
Table salt vs. gourmet salts
Iodized salt or table salt is fortified with iodine, which is good for thyroid function.
“Without the iodized salt, there are some people who may not get enough iodine in their diets,” said Katherine Zeratsky, RDN, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Although table salt is one of the main sources of iodine, milk, yogurt, cod and seaweed contain it as well. Iodized salt is also processed and not made up entirely of sodium chloride. Although anti-caking and flow agents are added, there’s no research to support that the amount of additives you’re actually getting is detrimental, Zeratsky said.
Other types of salt, such as sea salt, kosher salt and Himalayan crystal have been touted as healthy, likely because they claim to contain more minerals than refined table salt. Yet the amount of minerals that are maintained isn’t enough to make the specialized salt healthy. Plus, “you shouldn’t be consuming sodium for the minerals you need in your diet— they are plenty of healthy foods to get those,” Mangieri said.
Nevertheless, these gourmet salts do have larger crystals, which means they have less sodium per teaspoon, so you can use less. Plus, they can add a crunchy texture and more flavor.
Low-sodium salt, which has removed some sodium and replaced it with potassium, may be a better option if you’re looking to cut down on sodium. But if you’re taking a potassium-sparing diuretic or another medication that could cause you to hold onto potassium, you shouldn’t use low-sodium salt. Since potassium plays a role in how the muscles work, overdoing it could potentially cause serious heart irregularities, Zeratsky said.
Focus on flavor, not salt.
When it comes to reducing the amount of sodium in your diet, a good rule of thumb is:Everything in moderation. Eat a whole-foods diet with lots of vegetables and some fruit which will give you plenty of minerals and counteract sodium’s effects.
Reduce or eliminate anything that’s processed or packaged and cook more meals instead of eating out.
Instead of salt, try using fresh herbs and natural spices to add flavor to your meals.
When you do use salt, pay attention to how much you’re using.
“If you really love the taste of salt, instead of cooking with it, sprinkle a little bit on your food before eating it,” Zeratsky said. “It gives that same salty taste without being buried in the food,” Zeratsky said
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.