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Last week, we learned a little bit more about the spices on our shelves and what you get when you choose an organic product. This week, we’re talking about refined and unrefined salt.
What kind of salt do you use? Kosher salt? Sea salt? Table salt?
Here’s some stuff you already know: salt is mostly sodium chloride (NaCl), it is naturally occurring in sea water, and there are dozens of types of salt available to us. You may have also heard that too much salt in your diet can cause high blood pressure. As I started to learn about salt, I noticed that despite the dozens of options on the store shelf, there are basically only two kinds of salt: unrefined or refined.
(While we’re not going to debate whether salt is evil or good, I encourage you to look into the recent research showing that low salt intake has a higher occurrence of heart disease and hypertension. There are other studies all showing similar results: lower salt intake has an immediate effect on blood pressure, but it’s not the sole cause of hypertension, and limiting it is not the sole cure.)
Unrefined salt is harvested, ground, and packaged. The salt can come from deep-shaft salt mines (Real salt, Himalayan salt) or from evaporated ocean water (sea salt). Unrefined salt retains all the trace minerals found in the natural salt. How many trace minerals? Brands report 50-84 trace minerals naturally occurring in the salt. Some of these bonus minerals include: calcium, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, iodine, manganese, copper and zinc…and dozens more.
Refined salt is harvested, refined (see details below), and packaged. The refined salt can come from the same sources as unrefined salt, but nearly all the trace minerals are removed as “impurities” during the refinement process, sold to other industries, and then extra “stuff” is sometimes added in the final salt. Here are the basic steps in salt refining:
-Salt washing & milling (using sulfuric acid and/or chlorine)
-Dosing of additives & coating
-Sizing and conditioning
Refined salt comes out very pure, about 99.5% pure NaCl and devoid of trace minerals. The “dosing of additives” can include anti-caking agents (potassium or sodium ferrocyanide), free-flowing agents (magnesium carbonate, calcium silicate, sodium silico-aluminate and tricalcium phosphate), and iodizing agents (potassium iodide or iodate with dextrose, aka sugar, to stabilize the iodide).
Unrefined salt is composed of 50+ minerals, occurs naturally, and has no additives
Refined salt is composed of 2 minerals (sodium and chloride), is chemically treated to remove minerals, and may have additives (up to 2% of the total weight)
Which sounds better to you? Unrefined salt has extra nutrients and no additives, so it’s a winner in my book!
Do I need Iodized Salt? No, but you do need iodine. In the 1920’s, the US began enriching salt with iodine (in the form of potassium iodide) to help prevent thyroid conditions like goiter. The human body does need trace amounts of iodine to function normally. However, iodine is a naturally occurring element and found in any products that come from the sea (like seafood, kelp, seaweed, etc.) Plus, most soils have iodine, so fruits and veggies grown in them will also have iodine, as will any dairy products from cows who graze on grass. Even better, unrefined salt naturally contains trace amounts of iodine. So, if you eat a reasonably balanced diet, you get enough iodine anyways, only in a more natural, unprocessed state.
Are all unrefined salts equally good?
For the most part, all unrefined salts will have similar mineral profiles. However, there is a lot of talk about the source of the salt.
Deep-Shaft Mined Salt: these salts are harvested from salt mines. One of the largest producers, Real Salt, is located in Redmond, Utah. This salt mine is considered an ancient sea bed, remnants from when Utah was once under the ocean…way before modern pollution was an issue. Another example of a deep-mined, ancient sea bed salt is Himalayan pink salt which is mined in Pakistan. Both of these mined salts have the best mineral profiles (60-80 trace minerals) and come from pollution-free ancient sea beds. Their color is also similar – a light pink color attributed to its iron content. They do differ in flavor with Himalayan salt having a more “earthy” taste and Real Salt tasting slightly sweeter. Both are excellent choices and a matter of personal taste.
Sea Salt: is harvested from saltwater all around the world and also contains some extra, naturally-occurring trace minerals. Natural, unrefined sea salt will retain all these minerals in their original balance. The color can vary from light grey to black (Hawaiian Black Lava salt). It will be richer in sulfur, magnesium, calcium, and potassium than mined salt, but it won’t have the same variety of trace minerals as mined salt. Due to sea salt’s higher mineral content, it also claims to have less sodium than other salts. Today’s modern oceans can suffer from pollution. Does chemical pollution get into sea salt? It is possible, but don’t ditch your sea salt yet. Know your source. Some brands take great care to collect their salt from clean, non-polluted areas. For example, Celtic Sea Salt is hand-harvested from unpolluted shores and third-party certified to be free from pesticides, herbicides, and harmful chemicals.
A Note About Sea Salt: there are several gourmet brands of sea salt. Some are refined to remove impurities (aka minerals), some are not. Research your source and find out how their salt is made. If it’s purely white, it’s refined. Know what you’re buying.
What about all the different kinds of salt on the store shelves? What are the differences?
-Kosher salt – can come from any source, and is distinguished by its larger crystal size, which makes it a great choice for preserving and curing meats and for cooking. Most brands are refined to remove trace minerals but usually lack additives like anti-caking agents, free-flowing agents, and iodide. Some unrefined salts are also available as Kosher salt.
-Pickling salt – is used for pickling and preserving foods. It is refined to remove minerals but does not contain any additives. Pickling salt is a much finer grind to help it dissolve more quickly.
-Popcorn salt – is a super fine grain salt (like powdered sugar) that’s used to season popcorn, chips, fries…anything that needs a super-fine coating of salt and not larger crystals. It usually includes other additives like anti-caking agents or additional flavors.
-Garlic salt – one type of flavored salt, garlic salt combines dried garlic with salt. Anti-caking and free-flowing additives may be used, check the label.
-Lite Salt – is a salt substitute that uses a sodium-free salt, potassium chloride (KCl). The science behind this: unlike sodium, potassium doesn’t cause water retention, and therefore doesn’t affect vascular pressure. The drawback? Medications for high blood pressure, antibiotics, and antifungal medicines affect the body’s ability to eliminate extra potassium. Too much potassium in your diet can lead to heart problems. Sodium, ironically, helps your body eliminate excess potassium. So double potassium + reduced ability to eliminate it may cause issues. (more about potassium)
-Smoked Salt – another type of flavored salt, smoked salt is a salt that has been smoked to absorb the smoky flavor and then transfer it to your food. Check your labels, though. “Smoke flavored salt” can also be made by mixing salt with liquid smoke, a processed food which may contain additives like sugar, artificial flavors, and caramel coloring.
-Seasoned Salt – contains salt + other stuff including sugar, spices, artificial flavors, anti-caking additives and sometimes cleverly hidden MSG. The store-bought brands are proprietary and can hide a lot of ingredients as “spices”, legally allowing them to withhold their full ingredient list from you.
Shopping for Salt
Good news! There are lots of readily available options for unrefined salt and some great savings too. While visiting my local grocery store I found several unrefined options: Redmond’s Real Salt, Pink Himalayan salt, and unrefined sea salt. If you haven’t bought an unrefined salt before, where do you start?
Know what you’re looking for. Any product with extra ingredients besides “salt” is refined. Any product that is purely white is refined.
Try some smaller sizes. If you’re switching to a new brand of salt, try out a couple to see what you like and what you don’t like. I saw small 2-4 oz bottles of Real Salt and Pink Himalayan salts available for $2-4.
Buy in bulk. Once you find a salt you like, shop around for a great bulk price. I found pink Himalayan salt on Amazon, $7.20 (with subscribe and save) for 2 lbs ($0.23 per ounce). The best deal I’ve found on Redmond’s Real Salt is in a local store, 25 lbs for $63 ($0.16 per ounce). They do sell online, but you will have to pay for shipping if you’re not local. For Celtic Sea Salt, I found the best price on their website: available in 5, 22, or 55-lb bags for as low as $0.23 per ounce.
DIY Sensational Salt Blends
Once you have a quality, mineral-rich salt, it’s time to get creative and save money on all those specialty salts.
DIY Pickling Salt or Popcorn Salt: grind salt in a food processor, spice grinder, coffee grinder, or blender. Stop at the desired consistency. Store.
DIY Garlic Salt: mix 1 part dried garlic (from your spice rack or dry your own) with 3 parts salt and blend until combined.
DIY Lemon Lime Salt: mix ? cup fine grain salt or ½ cup flaky/coarse salt with 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon and lime zest. Using your clean hands, rub the zest into the salt to distribute the oils. Bake in a 200º oven for about 3 hours or until the zest is dry and crumbly. Pulse in a food processor a few times to break up the zest. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 months.
DIY Celery Salt: mix ¼ cup fine grain salt, 1 tablespoon celery seed, and 2 tablespoons dried celery leaves (I dry my own in the oven from leftover celery stalks)
Salt is a staple in our kitchens and used to bring out the flavor in foods. Different salts are good for different purposes. Know what you’re buying and what’s going in your body. Table salt is refined, has no trace minerals, and has extra additives, just pure sodium going into your body. Unrefined salts are balanced by their naturally-occurring trace minerals and do not contain additives.
Good Choice: Select a salt without anti-caking and free-flowing agents.
Better Choice: Unrefined salts add extra trace minerals to your diet and retain the salt’s natural balance of sodium and minerals.
Best Choice: Unrefined salts from natural, trusted sources with high mineral contents (like ancient sea beds) are your best bet for a truly natural salt.
What are your thoughts about salt? Do you have a favorite brand? Have you tried any other homemade salt blends that you love? Share your blends and recipe ideas.
The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.