Before you reach for that salt shaker, you need to know that the kind of salt you eat matters. The typical table salt found in almost all kitchens and restaurants is similar to the industrial chemical used to de-ice highways. Now that doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it?
Despite its bad rap as a prime driver of heart disease, good salt is actually an essential component of a healthy diet. Even the mainstream medical establishment is starting to understand that good salt isn’t the bad guy it’s been made out be. In 2011, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that the risk of heart disease and related deaths rises with modest salt reductions. (Yes, it rises!)
This is troubling when you consider that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines have been steadily recommending that Americans reduce their sodium intake, from 6000 mg per day in the 2005 guidelines to 2300 mg per day in the 2015 guidelines.
Another 2010 study, published by researchers out of Harvard, found a link between a low-salt diet and an increase in insulin resistance, which is the gateway problem that leads to diabetes and obesity. And the insulin resistance developed quickly—within one week of adopting the low-salt diet. Yikes!
Here’s what you need to know: the kind of salt you eat matters. A lot.
Table salt is so refined that I consider it a food additive and not a food. It’s high in sodium and chloride only, it has been stripped of life-sustaining minerals like copper, iodine, potassium, magnesium, chromium, zinc, and iron. There is nothing left except sodium chloride. It’s nutritionally naked. As if that’s not bad enough, refined salt is then mixed with chemicals to keep it from clumping up inside the shaker. One of the anti-caking agents used is talc, which is a known carcinogen (that’s why pediatricians have stopped recommending the use of talcum powder on babies). It’s also typically fortified with potassium iodide, which then requires chemical stabilizers to prevent breaking down and releasing an unpleasant odor. A common stabilizer used is dextrose, which is a sugar.
Sea salt is different. Avoiding unrefined sea salt could actually be bad for your health.
Unrefined sea salt is not chemically modified in a lab or stripped of its minerals. Colorful, unrefined sea salt is essentially water from a sea or river that gets evaporated and purified. These types of salts should not dramatically impact blood pressure like table salt; in fact they offer healthy minerals which drive thousands of metabolic reactions in your body all day long. Purifed (but unrefined) sea salt fully retains healthy minerals that you need for your very survival, and for normal thyroid, muscle, heart and pancreatic function. And these types of salts won’t raise your blood pressure to the extent that table salt will.
If you want to boost the health benefits, and the taste, of your sea salt even more, choose a colored sea salt because the colors come from specific minerals that have additional health benefits of their own. Here are some of my favorites:
Pink Himalyan Salt
This pretty pink salt is mined from salt deposits located near the Himalayas. It gets its pink color from iron, but that’s not the only mineral this salt contains. Himalayan salt contains over 80 trace minerals —the most of any type of salt. Because it’s harvested from deposits that are underground, it is less exposed to the environmental toxins that are now found in our oceans and rivers. This is my go-to salt for everyday use—I feel like I’m taking a multi-mineral supplement each time I flavor my food with it.
Celtic or French Grey Sea Salt
This light grey salt comes from Brittany, in coastal France, and gets its color from the clay found in the tidal pools where the salt is dried. It does not have quite as many different minerals in it as pink Himalayan salt, but it has the highest content of minerals, gram for gram, of any salt, and is a particularly good source of magnesium.
Grey sea salt has the highest moisture content of any of the salts I’m covering in this article, so if you plan to put it in a salt grinder, you may want to get a ceramic grinder to prevent it from sticking to the gears. The coarse granules are great sprinkled over the top of a salad, a bowl of chili, or even on chocolate mousse or caramel gelato.
Red Alaea Hawaiian Salt
This sea salt starts white but then develops a beautiful rich red color when it’s dried in salt ponds that are lined with red volcanic clay (known as alaea in Hawaiian). That red hue comes from the presence of iron oxide, a digestible form of iron naturally found in the clay. Red Hawaiian salt also contains as many as 80 other trace minerals. Taste-wise, Hawaiian salt has a mellow, earthy flavor, making it a great way to add a savory taste to your food.
Cyprus or Hawaiian Black Lava Salt
This salt is naturally occurring sea salt is mixed with activated charcoal to give it its distinctive black color. This type of salt has a lower sodium content per gram than Himalayan salt, which means you can use more of it without getting an overly salty taste. Don’t let the thought of eating charcoal scare you—we’re not talking about the charcoal briquettes that you’d use to fuel your grill! This activated charcoal is made from wood, coal, or coconut shells which are burned to create a surface with lots of tiny little nooks and crannies. It’s referred to as either Cyprus or “Hawaiian” but regardless, the salt is black in color.
Once prepared, the activated charcoal has a positive charge that attracts negatively-charged ions (such as free radicals), which then lodge themselves in all the microscopic openings. Activated charcoal is like a sponge for toxins that then carries them out of your body through the digestive tract. There are supplements of this that are sometimes used in poisonings or removal of gut toxins. While the small amount of activated charcoal you’d ingest from sprinkling black lava salt on your food won’t be able to absorb a large amount of toxins, it still provides a little bit of natural detoxification support.
There’s another salt that is often used to cook Indian cuisine. If you love Indian food like I do, you’ve certainly tasted this salt, called kala namak. It’s also found in foods from Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Think of kala namak as more of a condiment. It has the same sodium chloride backbone as all salt, but it’s mixed with other herbs and smells a bit like very mild sulfur, which is due to the hydrogen and iron sulfide that it contains. It’s a delicious combination of spices, and I’m mentioning it here because it is also very dark in color, but it is not the same as Cyprus Lava salt, and it does not contain activated charcoal.
Unrefined sea salts are available from many retailers, such as your local health or gourmet food store. Many large grocery chains now carry them as well. If you prefer to shop online here’s an option for four of the delicious salts listed above. Other salt companies that I like include Selina Naturally Salt, Real Salt and Salt Works.
One last note: While you’re shopping, take a look at this very cool bamboo salt (or spice) box, it’s 3-tiered and I keep this on my coffee table with various salts and spices. I got it as a gift from a dear friend and I can’t help but share it with you all.
Suzy Cohen, has been a licensed pharmacist for over 30 years and believes the best approach to chronic illness is a combination of natural medicine and conventional. She founded her own dietary supplement company specializing in custom-formulas, some of which have patents. With a special focus on functional medicine, thyroid health and drug nutrient depletion, Suzy is the author of several related books including Thyroid Healthy, Drug Muggers, Diabetes Without Drugs, and a nationally syndicated column.