Salty About Salt


While eating a bag of chips the other day, I noticed that like many other foods that brand themselves as healthy/natural, the chip bag advertised that the chips were made with sea salt. Why though? What’s so special about sea salt? What’s wrong with regular salt? Why do I never see any artisanal mined salts? Is sea salt just another name for the salt on my table?

Out of my curiosity, I did some research to find out. However, I’m no expert, so take what I say with a grain of… well salt I guess.


What is salt?

Salt is the common, English term for a chemical compound called sodium chloride. A highly reactive metal, combined with a poisonous gas to yield a substance we sprinkle on dinner at night. Salt is a mineral, which is a non-organic (i.e. they do not contain the element carbon; this is not the same definition of the term as when it’s used to describe food), crystalline substance that influences how other chemical reactions take place, both in our bodies and in our food6!


Figure 1: Unit cell structure of sodium chloride. Each dot represents one atom of the molecule. The molecular structure is such that the atoms pack very tightly into what is known as a rock salt type structure, where each chloride atom is surrounded on all sides (6) by a sodium atom, and vice-versa.

Salt is an incredible, yet decidedly non-sexy, food. Wars have literally been fought over salt10, Ghandi began his resistance movement against British rule with salt3, and without salt we would literally die.


To briefly touch on the vast array of things that salt does: salt helps your body function properly via an ionic gradient across your cell membranes6; it helps dissolve the muscle protein myosin into the delicious tube of meaty goodness known as sausage (the word sausage actually is derived from the word salt8); salt preserves foods by making them inhospitable to bacteria4, and the taste of salt (even at non-perceivable levels) can enhance the sensation of sweetness and mask bitterness5. One of my personal idols in the food world, Dave Arnold, has even touted of the improved flavor of cocktails by adding salt at low levels to enhance the overall beverage.


What is the difference between my table salt and the other “gourmet salts”?

In a sense, salt is salt is salt. Salt is sodium chloride (though chemists have an entirely different definition of salt). Your body will treat all sodium chloride as the same regardless of whatever mystic place it came from. However, salts can vary wildly due to relatively small differences in composition. For instance, salts that have a portion of their sodium molecules replaced with potassium molecules can have a bitter aftertaste2. Sea salts from different regions around the world do actually have different colors, aromas, and intensities. These differences are a result of their mineral “impurities” such as calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium, and sulfur compounds2.


Not all differences are derived from salt’s chemical composition; some salts are characterized by the physical properties imparted by the crystalline structure. Fleur de sel is a popular French sea salt that is made by collecting the small crystals that form on the surface of seawater in evaporating pans, giving them a delicate pyramid-shaped structure. Had those crystals been allowed to grow larger and drop below the surface of the evaporating seawater, they would be called gray salt8.


Additionally, it should be noted that not all gourmet salts are sea salts. One of the most famous gourmet salts, Himalayan Pink Salt, is mined, and its iconic pink color is due to mineral impurities.



The differences between all these salts, though detectable, do not necessarily make any one salt better than standard table salt. Many websites I have visited claim that salts (or of things made of salts, like lamps) have unusual healing powers. But, from the research I have found, using a special salt from a distant sea is not likely to cure you of faults, defects, or shortcomings (you know, like arthritis, rheumatisms, or migraines). However, as previously stated, salt is incredibly important for maintaining process within your body that support healthy function. Though consumption of excessive amounts of salt may increase one’s risk of developing hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure). And while we’re on the topic of salt and health…


Why is my salt iodized?

You may have noticed (if you live in the U.S. at least) that your salt container specifies whether or not it is a source of iodine. What’s with that? We’ve already established that salt is sodium chloride, no iodine to be found. At least, there is no iodine unless it has been added, which is the case with iodized salt.


The reason salt may have iodine added to it is to help combat a medical condition called goiter. Goiter is an enlargement of the glands in your neck due to a deficiency of iodine. Today in the U.S. you are unlikely to see someone with goiter, but that was not the case 100 years ago when some regions of the country had upwards of two-thirds of their population afflicted. In the 1920’s, table salt in the U.S. began to be iodized to combat the condition. Today over 120 countries around the world iodize their salt in the continued effort to prevent goiter7.


Figure 2: A large goiter
Image Source: Labeled for re-use on Wikimedia Commons (Bhandari, 2009)

It is for similar reasons that fluoride is added to public water supply. The only thing the government is conspiring to do is keep our teeth in good condition1.


The final question to answer:


Should I be buying gourmet salts?

That’s up to you really. They will taste different and could be interesting as parts of different dishes. Salts with calcium impurities may even prove beneficial in some culinary applications, such as pickling or fermentation, by allowing the vegetables to stay firmer than they would with pure sodium chloride9. However, I don’t see myself spending my paychecks on special salts anytime soon. For now, I’m sticking with good ole’ table salt.



  1. American Dental Association. “Fluoride in Water.” org. American Dental Association, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
  2. Drake, S. L., and M. A. Drake. “Comparison Of Salty Taste And Time Intensity Of Sea And Land Salts From Around The World.” Journal of Sensory Studies (2011): n. pag. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
  3. com Staff. “Salt March.” A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
  4. “How Do Salt and Sugar Prevent Microbial Spoilage?” Scientific American. N.p., 17 Feb. 2006. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
  5. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Strategies To Reduce Sodium Intake. “Taste and Flavor Roles of Sodium in Foods: A Unique Challenge to Reducing Sodium Intake.” Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States.S. National Library of Medicine, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
  6. Khan, Sal. “Sodium-potassium Pump.” Khan Academy. N.p., 11 Feb. 2010. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
  7. Leung, Angela M., Lewis E. Braverman, and Elizabeth N. Pearce. “History of U.S. Iodine Fortification and Supplementation.” Nutrients. MDPI, Nov. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
  8. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. 639-44. Print.
  9.  McFeeters, Roger. “Pectin Methylation Changes and Calcium Ion Effects on the Texture of Fresh, Fermented, and Acidified Cucumbers.” Pectin Methylation Changes and Calcium Ion Effects on the Texture of Fresh, Fermented, and Acidified Cucumbers – ACS Symposium Series (ACS Publications). American Chemical Society, 1986. Web. 10 Jan. 2017.
  10. United States. National Park Service. “The El Paso Salt War.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

Science Meets Food

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