I have six different types of salt in my kitchen right now. While that may seem like a lot, Eater reports that Japan is home to more than 4,000 unique varieties of the delicious mineral, so I still have more exploring to do. You may be wondering what a dietitian is doing with so much salt. Isn’t salt bad for you? Sure. Anything done to excess is bad for you. But how much salt is considered “excess” and what’s the best type of salt to use, anyway?
Salt has a long and storied history in the human diet. It's believed to have first been used by the Egyptians thousands of years ago, and since then it's been used by all cultures to preserve food and as a seasoning. Salt enhances the flavors of our food and is beloved in every cuisine around the world. It’s in everything from spaghetti sauce to chocolate chip cookies. In fact, it’s well known that adding a bit of salt to baked goods makes the final product taste sweeter. Try a sprinkle of salt on a slice of watermelon, for instance, and watch it come to life.
How Much Salt Is Too Much?
Salt's chemical name is sodium chloride. Sodium is an essential nutrient for human health, necessary for contractions in every muscle in your body — including your heart. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health states that we need about 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day for these vital processes.
While salt adds lots of flavor to food, too much sodium in the body and can lead to water retention and high blood pressure, according to the Cleveland Clinic. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a huge factor affecting overall health, and especially heart health. It's especially important to keep an eye on your sodium levels when your diet is short on potassium, a nutrient that balances the effects of sodium and decreases blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While potassium is found in lots of produce, many Americans fall short when it comes to this essential nutrient, and that means we need to watch our sodium even more carefully.
According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of salt per day, which is far above the amount recommended for good health. For instance, the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day or less. That’s about how much sodium there is in 1 teaspoon (tsp) of table salt. The American Heart Association goes even further, recommending that a threshold of 1,500 mg of sodium per day is even better, especially for those with high blood pressure or heart disease. They do point out, however, that cutting back even a little each day can make a big difference for heart health in the long run.
The thing is, most of the sodium Americans get in their diets doesn’t come from a shaker. Per the American Heart Association, more than 70 percent of the sodium in our diet comes from processed foods. While most people know that cold cuts and canned soup are notoriously high in sodium, many other high-sodium foods are those you wouldn’t think to worry about, such as bread, salad dressing, and cheese. That’s why the most important change you can make to lower your blood pressure is to cut back on processed, packaged, and restaurant foods, and include more unprocessed, whole foods in your diet.
When it comes to adding salt to food yourself, the kind you choose can have a big impact on flavor. Research shows it’s the size of the salt crystals as well as the minerals that bind with the salt that afffect its flavor and perceived saltiness. Here are some of the basic kinds of salt and what to know about them.
Types of Salt
Iodized (table) salt This is the most common type of salt and the one you’re most likely to find in any salt shaker, per the Mayo Clinic. Iodized salt is processed to remove trace minerals and fortified with iodine, an essential nutrient for humans and one that plays a key role in thyroid health, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The U.S. government began to iodize salt in 1924 when iodine deficiency was prevalent, according to Harvard Health Publishing, but these days most people get plenty of iodine from other food sources, including bread, many types of seafood, and milk. In other words, while the iodization of salt in impoverished countries is essential, it may not be so in the United States. Iodized salt has a small crystal size, which tends to make it more intensely flavored than a salt with larger crystals, such as kosher salt. So, while this may have been your “go to” salt in the past, it may be time to explore other options.
Kosher salt The size of kosher salt's crystals make it ideal for the koshering process. I’m not usually one for name-dropping, but when it comes to kosher salt, I make an exception. That’s because one brand, Diamond Crystal kosher salt, contains significantly less sodium per tsp (as much as 48 percent less) than its iodized counterparts, and less than other brands of kosher salt as well. Compared with the 2,330 mg of sodium USDA data reports is in 1 tsp of iodized salt, Morton kosher salt contains 1,920 mg per tsp, and Diamond Crystal kosher salt contains just 1,120 mg. For this reason, Diamond Crystal kosher salt is what I use in my everyday cooking (and what most chefs use, for that matter). That sodium savings is just too hard to pass up! The lack of iodine and trace minerals and the larger grain size give kosher salt a cleaner and less salty flavor.
Sea salt Sea salt is exactly what it sounds like — salt that comes from seawater that has been evaporated, leaving the natural salt behind. Sea salt is less processed than table salt and contains more trace minerals, according to the Mayo Clinic. You may find that you enjoy the flavor of sea salt more than table salt, but being “less processed” in this case does not make sea salt a healthier choice. Both sea salt and table salt contain about the same amount of sodium by weight. I have a type of sea salt in my pantry that is collected from seaweed, and it has a rich umami flavor as a result. Yum!
Flaked sea salt Flaked sea salt comes from the sea as well, but is evaporated in a way that makes the salt form large flakes. This can be the perfect choice as a finishing salt (a sprinkle on top of your food) for a touch of salty crunch and sparkle. Try a couple of flakes on top of a homemade chocolate chip cookie for a truly magical experience!
Pink Himalayan salt Mined from ancient seabeds in Pakistan, this salt is naturally pink from the trace minerals it contains, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Many people claim this makes the salt healthier, but there's no substantial evidence that this is the case. When it comes to sodium (the main nutrient of concern with all salt) Himalayan salt and table salt contain about the same amount by weight, according to data from the USDA. Some people claim that using a lamp made from a large block of pink Himalayan salt releases negative ions that can improve everything from air quality to sleep. There is no science to support this, alas, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Hawaiian salt Like most things Hawaiian, their salt is beautiful! You can find it in red and black varieties. Red Hawaiian salt, called alaea salt, gets its color naturally from a type of clay in Hawaii. Similarly, the black “lava” salt gets its color from naturally occurring activated charcoal. Like many other salts, these contain trace minerals that give them a unique flavor, according to some sources. When it comes to sodium, these salts won’t offer any savings over table salt. These salts can be used during cooking, but their light crunch and beautiful color make them a perfect finishing salt, too.
A Few Final Thoughts
- If iodine deficiency isn’t a concern for you, stop using iodized salt and you'll enjoy better flavor.
- Choose the type of salt based on what’s right for a particular dish; many recipes specify a salt type.
- Add just enough to make your dish shine, but never too much.
- Eat fewer processed foods to cut back on sodium.
That’s just my advice — you can take it with a grain of salt!