Though pretty, most gourmet salts have only slightly lower sodium levels… (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles…)
An explosion of natural, artisanal salts in a rainbow of colors has been elbowing aside the stark white, fine-grain variety known as table salt in markets and restaurants across the country. Chefs and foodies admire the gourmet seasonings -- including Himalayan, Hawaiian, Bali, pink, gray, black and flake salts -- for the color, flavor and texture they add to food.
Some consumers, meanwhile, are turning to them in the hopes that they're more healthful than table salt, a notion rooted in claims that natural salts are lower in sodium and richer in other minerals than table salt. Those hopes appear to be largely naive.
Gourmet salts are slightly lower in total sodium chloride (NaCl) content than table salt -- but the difference is small.
The products won't lower overall sodium intake enough to make a difference to people who are watching their blood pressure, says Dr. Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine specializing in heart disease and hypertension research at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Though table salt is often purified to at least 99% sodium chloride, the levels in many artisanal salts hover just below: Several popular flake salts are about 98% sodium chloride, Himalayan pink salts are typically about 96% and Bali salt, from the seas north of Indonesia, is about 95%.
"If you're really watching your sodium intake, these are essentially the same as table salt," says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, a registered dietitian in Sacramento and coauthor of the "No-Salt, Lowest-Sodium" series of cookbooks.
The lowest-sodium artisanal salt on the market right now, says Didi Davis, president of Salt Traders, a salt purveyor in Ipswich, Mass., is Kona sea salt, from deep in the Pacific off the coast of Hawaii; it's 78% sodium chloride.
As with other gourmet salts, the remaining percentage is comprised of a range of minerals -- often calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc. The mineral content is what gives artisanal salts their color, as well as their unique flavors, Davis says.
One type of black salt gets its color from added activated charcoal, a substance often given to poison victims, which has led to exaggerated claims that the salt can help clear toxins from the body; in fact, the amount of activated charcoal is likely far too small to have such an effect, says Roger Clemens, adjunct professor of pharmacology at the University of Southern California, who studies nutrition and toxicology.
But while you may get more calcium or potassium from natural sea salts, says Clemens, "the increase is small, really minuscule." Case in point: A teaspoon of Bali salt contains 0.13% calcium, and white Cyprus flake salt 0.094% calcium.
Meanwhile, table salt usually provides an element that unprocessed sea salts don't: iodine, crucial for normal brain development and a healthy thyroid.
Iodine is found in only a few foods, such as fish, dairy products, bread and some produce. About a century ago, iodine deficiency was so prevalent in landlocked states that it formed a so-called goiter belt across the country. Today, goiter (an enlarged thyroid caused by iodine deficiency) is rare in the U.S., due to widespread iodization of salt, says Gazzaniga-Moloo, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. (Salt was chosen because it's such a commonly used condiment. The amount of iodine added is small -- about 76 milligrams of potassium iodide per 1 kilogram of salt -- and the taste undetectable.)
Iodine and anti-caking agents (minerals added to prevent clumping) aside, table salt usually contains more than 99% sodium chloride -- which means that when consumers purchase table salt, they know what they're getting, Clemens says. Natural, unprocessed salts may contain traces of heavy metals (such as mercury or arsenic) found naturally in oceans or soil. That said, Clemens added, the amounts would likely be way too small to pose any health problems.
Scientists and chefs alike agree that nutritional differences aside, gourmet salts are far superior to table salt when it comes to taste and appearance. "They do offer aesthetics and differences in flavor," Clemens said, "but they're not the way to cut down on sodium."
Some chefs, however, see an added advantage to gourmet salts. Because they're so complex and rich in flavor, says John Ash, an adjunct instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in St. Helena, Calif., chefs often use them sparingly.
"We eat way too much salt in our food," Ash said. "When you add a good salt at the end, you don't use as much, and you end up potentially using less salt overall."