MYTH BUSTING

Are gourmet salts healthier than regular table salt?

Himalayan pink salt, Hawaiian black salt and other exotic salts are not any better for you than conventional salt. If you’re looking for health benefits, the best choice is iodized salt.

Many supermarkets today carry a range of gourmet salts like Himalayan pink salt, Hawaiian black salt, Persian blue salt, French fleur de sel and other exotic options. Their colorful crystals are a feast for the eyes, and they can add life to just about any dish. Some people believe these salts also have certain nutritional and physiological benefits thanks to the minerals they contain.

 A closer look at their content
In 2016, the Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (OSAV) issued a report on gourmet salts.1 OSAV scientists examined the composition of 25 types of salt sold in Switzerland – especially those billed as being good for your health. They measured the concentrations of mineral salts and trace elements using three spectroscopic methods, and compared these concentrations with the recommended or tolerable daily intake for a 60 kg adult.

The scientists found that all the salts they analyzed had between 83% and 99% sodium chloride (NaCl) – also known as table salt. In other words, they were mostly just salt. But conventional salts were found to be purer than the gourmet salts, with an average NaCl concentration of around 99% versus 94% for the gourmet variety. So what makes up the remaining 1–6%?

Some salts were found to have contaminants like aluminum, uranium and cadmium. These were found in greater concentrations in the gourmet salts – but none of the salts analyzed had concentrations high enough to pose a health risk. The amount of contaminants in 5 g of most of the salts was less than 1% of the tolerable daily intake.

 A source of nutrients, but in miniscule amounts
Although the OSAV scientists screened the salts for a wide range of elements, they found very few minerals and oligo-elements. Many of the nutrients they looked for weren’t found in any of the salts, either because the salts didn’t contain them or because the nutrient concentrations were so small that they were below the detection limit. For the vast majority of the nutrients that were found, 5 g of salt had less than 2% of the recommended daily intake. The OSAV report therefore concludes that such meager amounts “are nutritionally insignificant.”

One exception is Persian salt, which has relatively high levels of potassium: 5 g of this salt has 25% of the recommended daily intake. Another exception is Himalayan salt, which has a significant amount of iron: 5 g of this salt contains nearly 20% of the recommended daily intake. The iron is what gives the salt its pink color; the darker the color, the higher the iron concentration. The iron comes from impurities naturally present in the rocks from which the salt is taken. But since the iron is in the form of insoluble iron oxide, our bodies have a hard time absorbing it. The OSAV has therefore said that Himalayan salt cannot be considered a good source of iron, despite its relatively high concentration.

The advantage of iodized salt
A third – and perhaps unsurprising – exception is iodized salt. This is table salt that has been fortified with iodine following a recommendation made by the Swiss Federal Commission for Nutrition (COFA) to the country’s NaCl producers. Iodine has been added to table salt in Switzerland since 1920, and this has eradicated once-widespread diseases caused by severe iodine deficiency such as goiter and mental development disorders. Iodine is also an essential oligo-element for our thyroids to produce hormones. The amount of iodine added to table salt has increased since the 1920s, and grew from 15 mg/kg salt in 1980 to 25 mg/kg salt in 2014.2 But iodine deficiency remains a concern to this day.

Sea salt naturally has only a small amount of iodine, meaning it cannot be considered equivalent to iodized salt in this respect.1 But seafood such as fish and crustaceans, as well as seaweed and even milk and cheese contain iodine.3

In short, even though some gourmet salts may contain iron or potassium, they don’t offer the same health benefits as iodized table salt. The OSAV report even states that “there are no advantages to gourmet salts over conventional table salt. On the contrary, due to their low or even zero concentrations of iodine, gourmet salts should not be used to replace iodized table salt except on rare occasions. […] They have no significant nutritional properties and we consequently do not recommend them for daily use in cooking or seasoning.”

 

Sources

  1. 1. “Rapport sur la composition des spécialités de sels courantes.” Esther Infanger and Max Haldimann, Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (OSAV), May 2016.
  2. 2. “A Bon Entendeur, Sel et carence en iode en Suisse,” Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS), May 16, 2017.
  3. 3. “Dr Iode et Mr Sel,” Factfood, Invivomagazine, Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV).

 

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