Learn ten healthier alternatives to table salt.
Salt: this humble yet essential compound has been at the heart of human survival and civilization for thousands of years. Integral to our daily diet, it enhances the flavor of our foods, acts as a preservative, and even plays a role in various industrial applications. Yet, the form of table salt most of us are familiar with—pure, white, iodized salt—has become a topic of intense debate among health-conscious individuals and complementary health professionals.
This article will take you on a journey into the world of salt. We will uncover why and how salt came to be iodized, delve deep into the controversies surrounding the iodization process—specifically the bleaching involved and seek other alternatives.
Why Do Some Health Conscious People Avoid Table Salt?
The answer lies not in table salt itself. Instead, it lies in the process through which it becomes iodized. This process heralded as a significant public health breakthrough during the last century is under scrutiny. Not because iodine—an element added to the salt during this process—is harmful. Quite the contrary, iodine is vital for our health, playing a pivotal role in our thyroid and metabolic processes. The concern revolves around the other aspects of the iodizing process, including the salt’s bleaching.
It makes sense.
We live in a time where the push for all-natural, unprocessed food is stronger than ever. It is a movement powered by increasing awareness about the links between our consumption and health outcomes. As a result, we question the foods and ingredients we’ve long taken for granted. Salt, as mundane as it might seem, is no exception.
NOTE: Consult your primary care physician before making significant dietary changes. This professional can assess your needs based on your health history, dietary habits, and health status. Thus, they will help ensure you maintain a balanced nutrient intake.
How Food Manufacturers Process and Bleach Iodized Salt
The term “bleaching” can be misleading when used in the context of salt production. In fact, food processing facilities do not “bleach” salt in the traditional sense that we associate with, say, paper or textile bleaching. Instead, “bleaching” refers to the refining process that results in clean, white salt. Nevertheless, some food safety advocates speak against the methods.
Here’s a brief overview of the process that some manufacturers use to refine salt:
Salt is a common and essential mineral in everything from culinary arts to industrial applications. While it seems simple and ubiquitous, extracting salt from various sources is fascinating. This process varies considerably based on the type of salt and its origin—whether it comes from seawater, salt mines, or brine wells.
Washing and removal of impurities (bleaching salt):
After extraction, the washing process removes any remaining impurities. This process can involve a series of dissolution, filtration, and re-crystallization steps, removing any dirt, natural minerals, or other materials. This process, sometimes called “bleaching,” results in clean, white salt, but the term can be misleading because no bleach or bleaching agents are in use.
So, while the term “bleaching” is often used in the refining process, it’s important to clarify that this doesn’t mean the salt receives a chemical bleach or any similar substance. However, this refining process removes the trace minerals naturally occurring in the salt, producing nearly 100% sodium chloride. That’s why it famously leads to high blood pressure.
Evaporation and crystallization:
In the evaporation stage, the salt solution (seawater or brine) receives heat—either from the sun in the case of sea salt or through artificial means in a controlled environment, such as an evaporation pan, for other types of salt. As the water in the solution evaporates, the concentration of salt increases.
The evaporation process ensures a gradual reduction of water. This process may take weeks or even months for sea salt, depending on the local climate and weather conditions. This process may be quicker for other types of salt, thanks to artificial heat sources and the ability to control the environment more precisely.
As the water evaporates and the salt concentration increases, the conditions become ripe for crystallization. At a certain saturation point, the salt begins to form solid crystals. Factors like the rate of evaporation, the temperature, and the concentration of other minerals in the solution can influence the size and shape of the salt crystals.
Once the crystals have formed, they can settle before being harvested. The resulting salt crystals can vary widely in size and structure, offering different textures and flavor experiences for culinary use.
Drying and sorting:
The harvested salt crystals may still contain moisture even after evaporation and crystallization. The harvested salt dries a little longer to remove this remaining moisture. This process also adds to its storage life and usability. The methods can include applying heat, air circulation, or a combination of both.
Proper drying is crucial as it not only helps to prevent clumping but also maintains the salt’s overall quality and enhances its free-flowing nature, which is particularly important for table salt.
After drying, the salt crystals are sorted by size. This process often involves screens or sieves that separate larger crystals from smaller ones. The sorting process ensures that the final product meets the desired specifications for crystal size.
Adding anti-caking agents to the iodized salt:
A characteristic most consumers look for in table salt is its ability to flow freely without clumping or sticking together. This attribute is particularly crucial for practical uses, such as using a salt shaker or measuring precise amounts for cooking or baking. To achieve this, manufacturers often add anti-caking agents to the salt during production.
Anti-caking agents are compounds that absorb moisture and prevent individual salt crystals from sticking together, which would otherwise form lumps. The moisture-absorbing properties of these substances help keep the salt dry, particularly in humid conditions where salt naturally tends to absorb moisture from the air and clump together.
Common anti-caking agents used in salt include calcium silicate, sodium aluminosilicate, and magnesium carbonate. These agents are typically added in tiny amounts, often less than 1% of the total product weight.
The FDA deems these anti-caking agents generally safe. Still, the shift towards clean eating and minimally processed foods has led some consumers to seek salts without these additives. As a result, various alternative salts, such as Himalayan pink salt, Celtic sea salt, and others, have grown in popularity. These salts offer more comprehensive flavors, textures, and mineral content than regular iodized table salt.
How Do Manufacturers Iodize the Salt?
Here’s a look at the process manufacturers use to iodize salt:
- Selection of Raw Salt: The initial step involves the selection of the raw salt. It could be sea salt, rock salt, or lake salt. The quality of the salt is crucial as it affects the success of the iodization process and the stability of iodine in the final product. The salt should be dry, with a low moisture content and a high purity level.
- Cleaning and Washing: The raw salt needs cleaning to remove impurities. Food manufacturers rinse the salt and allow it to dry. After cleaning, the food facility often crushes the salt to create smaller, even-sized crystals.
- Iodization: The iodization process involves spraying the salt with potassium iodate or potassium iodide. The solution is sprayed onto the salt as it’s stirred, allowing the iodine solution to coat the salt crystals evenly. The amount of iodine added depends on the recommendations of public health authorities, but it typically ranges between 20 to 40 parts per million (ppm). The specific compound they use (usually potassium iodate versus potassium iodide) depends on several factors, including cost, availability, and stability in local environmental conditions.
- Drying and Packaging: After iodization, the salt dries to prevent caking and ensure iodine stability. The salt is then packaged and sealed to prevent moisture from affecting the iodine content.
- Quality Control: Samples are regularly tested to ensure the iodine content remains within the desired range. Additionally, testing ensures that the iodine is evenly distributed throughout the salt.
Understanding Salt and Its Essential Connection to Human Health
From the sea breeze to our tears and sweat, salt is a part of our lives in ways we often overlook. Sodium chloride, the scientific name for ordinary table salt, plays several crucial roles in our bodies. It helps maintain the balance of fluids, aids in nerve transmission and muscle function and is essential for digestion and absorption.
The genesis of iodized salt to address public health concerns
The practice of iodizing salt began in the early 20th century as a public health response to a significant health concern—Iodine Deficiency Disorders (IDD). These include a range of conditions like goiter (an enlargement of the thyroid gland), intellectual disabilities, growth delays, and other health problems. Iodine, a trace element, is crucial for producing thyroid hormones, which regulate our body’s metabolism and are essential for brain development, especially during infancy and pregnancy.
Several regions worldwide, particularly those far from the sea, like mountainous regions and flood-prone river valleys, have iodine-deficient soils. Diets based on crops from these soils result in low iodine intake, leading to the prevalence of IDD. To combat this, health agencies turned to a widely consumed and distributed commodity – salt.
Public health officials could ensure its steady consumption by adding iodine to salt, thus helping to eliminate iodine deficiency. This strategy has been successful, with a significant reduction in IDD reported globally.
Conversely, it is important to mention that excessive iodine intake can also cause health problems, including thyroid dysfunction.
Health concerns surrounding iodized salt
The most common concern about table salt is not the iodine itself but the other processes it will undergo. As discussed earlier, particular concerns are the bleaching and the addition of anti-caking agents. Questions about the safety of consuming chemically treated foods have led many health-conscious individuals to seek more natural alternatives.
Another concern is the absence of other trace minerals in iodized salt due to processing. Natural, unrefined salts often contain other minerals like magnesium, potassium, and calcium, although in small amounts. While these quantities might not significantly contribute to our daily nutrient intake, they add a dimension of nutritional depth that iodized salt lacks.
Replacing Iodized Salt: Discovering Natural, Nutrient-Rich Varieties
Now that we thoroughly explored the processes of creating table salt–and the subsequent health concerns–let’s look at iodized salt alternatives. Each type of salt we discuss here brings its unique flavor, texture, and nutritional profile to the table, adding more than taste to your meals.
1 – Kosher salt
Kosher salt, a coarse salt, is derived from seawater or mining underground salt deposits. It gets its name from its use in koshering meat, a method in Jewish cuisine where the salt draws out blood from meat, making it kosher according to Jewish dietary laws.
The kosher salt crystals are larger and flakier than regular table salt and free of additives like anti-caking agents or iodine. Its coarse texture makes picking up and sprinkling food easy, giving chefs better control over seasoning.
Health advantages of kosher salt
While the nutritional composition of kosher salt isn’t vastly different from that of regular table salt—it’s mainly sodium chloride—its larger crystals mean you might use less of it, reducing your sodium intake. Moreover, since it’s often additives-free, you avoid any potential risks.
2 – Pink salt
Pink salt, or Himalayan pink salt, as it’s often called, comes from the Salt Range in the Punjab region of Pakistan. It is mined, then hand-extracted, and minimally processed to yield an unrefined product free from additives. The pink color comes from small amounts of iron oxide, or rust, and it also contains small amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Health advantages of pink salt
Himalayan pink salt’s main claim to health fame is its mineral content. While these minerals only comprise about 2% of the salt, their presence can contribute to your overall nutrient intake. Moreover, because it’s typically unrefined, it doesn’t undergo the bleaching process that regular iodized salt does.
3 – Black salt
Black salt, aka Kala Namak, is a rock salt popular in South Asia. It is mined in regions surrounding the Himalayas and then heated to high temperatures with herbs and other materials, which give it its dark color and sulfuric aroma.
It has a taste and aroma reminiscent of eggs. That is due to its high sulfur content, which gives it a unique, pungent flavor and aroma. This feature has made Kala Namak a popular choice for vegan and vegetarian dishes as a flavor substitute for eggs. It is particularly cherished in South Asian cuisine, where it enhances the flavor of chaats, chutneys, salads, and many other dishes.
Health advantages of black salt
Traditionally, black salt is beloved for its medicinal properties, particularly in Ayurveda. It is considered a cooling spice and is often used to help with digestive issues like bloating and constipation. Additionally, because of its unique flavor, it can be a great way to reduce sodium intake by using less salt while still adding flavor to your dishes.
4 – Hawaiian salt
Hawaiian salt, also known as red Alaea salt, gets its reddish hue from the volcanic clay (‘Alaea’) mixed with it. This clay is rich in iron oxide, giving the salt a unique color and a slightly earthy flavor.
Health advantages of Hawaiian salt
The primary health benefit of Hawaiian salt comes from the trace minerals and iron in the volcanic clay. Iron is an essential nutrient for human bodies, vital for producing red blood cells. Like other unrefined salts, Hawaiian salt does not undergo a bleaching process.
5 – Celtic sea salt
Celtic sea salt, or sel gris or gray salt, is harvested from tidal ponds off the coast of France. The salt crystals are collected by hand using traditional Celtic methods. The moisture from the sea gives this salt its grayish color and slightly wet texture.
Health advantages of Celtic sea salt
Like other unrefined salts, Celtic sea salt retains its mineral content, offering a broad spectrum of trace minerals. Additionally, due to its traditional harvesting methods, it does not undergo the extensive refining processes that regular table salt does, thereby avoiding the addition of unwanted chemicals or bleaching agents.
6 – Fleur de sel
Fleur de Sel, or “flower of salt,” is a sea salt hand-harvested from tidal pools on the French coast. The top layer of evaporating sea water is delicately collected to produce this light, flaky salt. Because of the labor-intensive harvesting process, Fleur de Sel is one of the costliest salts.
Health benefits of fleur de sel
Due to its natural harvesting process, Fleur de Sel is rich in mineral content. Like other natural salts, it does not undergo processing or bleaching, which ensures its purity. The delicate, crunchy texture also means that a little goes a long way, which can help moderate sodium intake.
7 – Khoisan salt
Khoisan Salt is a naturally crystallized, unrefined sea salt harvested from the calm, south Atlantic waters off the west coast of South Africa. The salt pans are located in a geographical area rich in essential minerals and trace elements, providing the salt with its high mineral content.
Health advantages of South African salt
Khoisan Salt is unrefined and sun-dried, retaining all its natural mineral content, which includes vital nutrients like potassium, iron, and magnesium. It’s harvested responsibly and sustainably, and, similar to the other alternatives mentioned, it doesn’t undergo any chemical treatments or bleaching.
8 – Redmond sea salt
Redmond Real Salt is an unrefined sea salt mined from an ancient sea bed near Redmond, Utah. Once part of the Jurassic era’s vast oceans, the sea bed dried up and left behind a rich deposit of salts with a broad array of trace minerals. The salt is harvested through conventional mining methods and then crushed and screened to size.
Due to its rich mineral content, Redmond Real Salt has a complex, subtly sweet flavor that is quite distinctive. Its color ranges from white to deep pink, thanks to the presence of these minerals. The texture is comparable to other finely-textured table salts, making it a versatile addition to various dishes.
Health benefits of Redmond sea salt
Redmond sea salt is natural and unrefined, retaining a full complement of beneficial trace minerals. It does not undergo any processing, bleaching, or addition of anti-caking agents, making it a wholesome choice for those seeking natural alternatives to iodized salt.
9 – Grey salt (sel gris)
Grey salt, or Sel Gris, is a “moist” unrefined sea salt, usually harvested in the Guérande region of France. Like Celtic sea salt, it gets its grey color from the clay-lined salt ponds where it’s harvested. The mineral-rich clay in the natural salt pans imparts this gourmet salt’s distinctive color and taste.
Grey salt has a crunchy texture and a slightly moist consistency that sets it apart from other salts. Its taste is robust and briny with a subtle hint of sweetness. This robust flavor profile can significantly enhance the taste of various dishes, from grilled meats to fresh salads.
Health benefits of grey salt
Sel gris undergoes minimal processing; thus, it retains its natural mineral content. These minerals add depth to their flavor and provide minor nutritional benefits. Like other natural salts, it does not contain additives or undergo chemical bleaching.
10 – Smoked salt
Smoked salt is a naturally smoked product that brings an added dimension to dishes with its rich, smoky flavor. It’s created by smoking sea salt over natural wood fires, often over several days. The type of wood used—such as hickory, alder, apple, or mesquite—determines the salt’s final flavor profile.
Smoked salt has a strong, smoky flavor that can vary depending on the wood used during the smoking process. It adds a unique depth to various dishes and is a great way to impart a smoky flavor without using a grill or smoker. Depending on the specific product, the texture can range from extremely fine to coarse.
Health advantages of smoked salt
As with other specialty salts, use smoked salts judiciously due to their high sodium content. It’s perfect for grilling or adding a touch of smokiness to dishes. While it doesn’t offer extra health benefits, it doesn’t undergo chemical processing or bleaching. Like other salts, moderation is vital to incorporating smoked salt into a healthy diet.
Beyond the Iodized Salt Shaker: Incorporating Natural Salts Into Your Lifestyle
Unveiling the diversity of natural salts is akin to opening Pandora’s box of flavors, textures, and health benefits. However, it’s essential to remember that salt should always be used judiciously regardless of its source or mineral content. While these salts offer more nutrients than iodized salt, they can still contribute to high sodium intake if used excessively.
Balanced consumption and understanding of each salt’s unique properties can best utilize them in your cooking and enable you to maximize their health and culinary benefits. Embrace the opportunity to experiment with different salts, discover new flavors, and enhance your meals while adding an extra dash of health.
Adopting natural salts into your diet is not just about enhancing flavor—it’s about embracing a healthier lifestyle choice. You’re choosing salts that are less processed, devoid of unwanted chemicals, and more in line with the natural way our bodies should consume nutrients.
You will also contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle choice. Many of these salt varieties are harvested using traditional, sustainable methods that less impact the environment. By choosing these alternatives, you will use your consumer power to vote for a more balanced, sustainable, and flavorful world. Enjoy this journey into the diverse world of natural salts!
Finding Iodine Naturally: Alternatives to Eating Iodized Salt
While reducing our dependence on iodized salt, we must remember that iodine is an essential nutrient for our bodies. This information is vital for thyroid hormone production, which is key for growth, brain development, and metabolism. So, as we embrace these healthier, less processed salt options, we must ensure we’re still getting adequate iodine in our diets.
Fortunately, many foods naturally contain iodine, providing ample opportunities to meet your dietary needs without relying on iodized salt. Here are some excellent natural sources of iodine:
- Seaweed: This is one of the richest natural sources of iodine. Foods like kelp, nori, and wakame are excellent options.
- Seafood: Various types of fish, such as cod and tuna, are iodine-rich. Shrimp and other shellfish also contain significant amounts of this essential mineral.
- Dairy Products: Milk, cheese, and yogurt can be excellent sources of iodine, mainly if the animals consume iodine-rich feed.
- Eggs: The yolks are abundant in this mineral.
- Iodine-Enriched Bread and Cereals: Many types of bread and cereals are fortified.
- Fruits and Vegetables: Their iodine content varies depending on the soil they’re grown in, the irrigation water used, and the fertilizers applied to the crops. Examples of iodine-rich vegetables and fruits are cranberries and potatoes.
Incorporating these iodine-rich foods into your diet can ensure a balanced intake of this essential nutrient, reducing your dependence on iodized salt while maintaining your health. It’s all about balance and making informed choices, adding another layer to our exploration of a healthier lifestyle.
How can vegans get iodine while limiting table salt?
Adequate iodine intake can be more challenging for vegans, as many of the richest sources are seafood or dairy products. However, there are still several excellent plant-based sources.
- Seaweed: Seaweeds, such as kelp, nori, and wakame, are among the best sources of iodine. However, the amount of iodine can vary significantly between batches.
- Iodine-Enriched Foods: Some foods are fortified with iodine, such as bread and cereals. Always check the label to be sure.
- Prune Juice: Prunes are an accessible source of iodine; you can find juices from non-GMO fruit.
- Potatoes: Potato skin is iodine-rich–eat the skin!
- Cranberries: These fruits are a great source. However, the iodine content can vary depending on where the cranberries grow.
- Green Beans: This common vegetable is a source of this mineral. However, the iodine content in vegetables can vary depending on the iodine content of the soil they’re grown in.
Although these foods can help you meet your iodine needs, getting enough iodine from food alone can be more challenging when you’re on a vegan diet. For this reason, some vegans may need to consider taking an iodine supplement. As always, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen.
By carefully planning and monitoring your diet, you can maintain sufficient iodine levels even when consuming minimal to no iodized salt. It allows you to benefit from the rich flavors and textures of natural, unrefined salts but have a balanced nutrient intake.
Are iodine supplements necessary in modern days?
The necessity of iodine supplements depends mainly on an individual’s dietary habits, health status, and geographical location. While most people can get enough iodine from their diet alone, certain groups may be at risk for iodine deficiency and may need to consider supplementation.
Groups at higher risk for iodine deficiency include the following:
- People living in areas with iodine-deficient soils: Iodine levels in the soil can impact the iodine content of crops. In certain regions, including parts of Europe, New Zealand, and the Himalayas, the soil is naturally low in iodine, potentially affecting the iodine content of food.
- Pregnancy: Iodine requirements increase during pregnancy, making getting enough through diet alone more challenging. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy can have profound effects, impairing fetal brain development.
- Consuming many goitrogenic foods: Certain foods, called goitrogens, can interfere with iodine absorption in the body. These foods include cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. Although these foods are healthy and should not be avoided altogether, individuals who consume them in large amounts might require more iodine in their diets.
- Vegans and vegetarians: These groups may be at risk for iodine deficiency, especially if they do not consume iodine-fortified foods or seaweed. Keep reading for a list of vegan-friendly ways to add this mineral to your diet.
While iodized salt was pivotal in eradicating goiter and other iodine deficiency disorders in the 20th century, today’s health-conscious consumers have several options to meet their iodine needs.
From exploring naturally iodine-rich foods to potentially supplementing under the guidance of a healthcare provider, there are several strategies to moderate the consumption of iodized salt. You will enjoy exploring the flavorful world of natural, unrefined salts.