Of the many things we eat, few things are as evocative as sea salt. (To the poetically minded eater, at least.) A dash of the saline crystals can bring to mind the mysteries of the ocean … mermaids, tide pools, mythic sea gods, ancient sailing ships, Greek islands. It’s the sea, condensed into grains we can hold between our fingertips. For many a foodie, it’s imbued with romance for its primal nature and the purity of its essence. (And for others, well, it’s just salt.)
But beyond the reverie it may incite, does salt harvested from the sea offer anything extra beyond what regular table salt provides? Some say it has less sodium, others say it has more minerals, some say its lack of iodine is a problem. Here’s how the facts bear out.
Sea salt is a low-impact food
Unlike some foods that are harsh to the environment, sea salt is relatively gentle because it's produced by evaporating water from the ocean until all that remains is solid minerals. Much of it is harvested by hand (although there are larger operations in the Mediterranean). Table salt is made by solution-mining, while salt is extracted from underground deposits and then purified. Mining is an extractive industry and disturbs the natural environment, and the waste stream from the mined salt industry has an impact as well.
Sea salt helps boost your minerals
With its minimal processing, sea salt retains many of its minerals. While all salt comes from the sea, salt that is mined comes from ancient sea beds and many of its minerals have dissipated — and the minerals that remain are lost in processing. Some sea salts have as many as 84 trace minerals, in addition to calcium, magnesium and potassium. Many other flavoring agents (like packaged seasoning mixes) have no minerals at all.
Sea salt decreases the additives you consume
Table salt is stripped of its minerals and has anti-caking agents, such as sodium aluminum silicate, or additive E-554. In fact, there are a total of 18 food additives that are allowed in salt. Sea salt contains no chemical additives. If you season with salt, you'll get fewer chemicals in your food if you use the sea salt variety.
Sea salt may lower your sodium intake
Although it has been reported that sea salt has less sodium than table salt, it’s not true. They both contain the same amount of sodium chloride by weight. However, sea salt has more flavor impact and so most people use less of it. The minerals enhance its flavor, and its larger grains deliver salty bursts in food, rather than the overall saltiness of fine table salt.
A note on iodine
Iodine is crucial for thyroid health and proper cognitive development, and its addition to salt slashed rates of iodine deficiency dramatically. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, tests have shown that the U.S. population is “iodine sufficient.”
Previously, however, about 25 percent of the iodine in the diet came from wheat (because iodine was used in the processing of flour). With a change in commercial flour production, bromide is now used, which not only decreases the iodine we consume, but it may actually block the activity of the iodine we are getting elsewhere.
In addition, a University of Texas at Arlington study published by the American Chemical Society found varying degrees of actual iodine in iodized salt, with many of the samples having much less iodine than the amount listed or recommended. Add in that only one-fifth of the salt consumed in the United States is iodized, and you can see how iodine deficiency may occur.
So if you opt for sea salt, there are companies (like Hain and Morton) that fortify their sea salt with iodine. As well, whatever salt you use, make a point to eat iodine-rich foods. (See this list of foods with high iodine content from the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health for guidance.)
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in December 2012.