Without salt, we die.
In the ancient world, salt was literally worth its weight in gold. Even in modern times, Mahatma Gandhi started the Indian revolution against the British in 1930, when the ruling power instituted a tax on salt. One of Gandhi's first acts was to lead hundreds in a march to the ocean, to harvest sea salt by hand, in defiance of their oppressors.
But salt, known chemically as sodium chloride, can cause problems when overused. The amounts found in the processed and fast food commonplace in our diets can contribute to serious health issues, including hypertension, which can lead to stroke and heart attack.
"People need to have salt. They can't eliminate it altogether and be healthy," said Grant Cefalo, a registered dietitian at McKay-Dee Hospital. "But that's not that really a danger for most. We recommend around 2,000 milligrams a day. But Americans are usually consuming about 6,000 miligrams on average."
Our craving for salt has led food companies and consumers in search of a healthier alternative. The latest of these being touted is natural sea salt.
Some think the taste is superior to typical table salts. Others believe it also offers health benefits that processed salts do not.
Companies like Planters, Campbell's and Wendy's have taken notice, offering sea-salted varieties of nuts, soups and french fries, respectively.
Present and past
The first thing to know is that what we call sea salt is not necessarily from existing oceans. All salt deposits were once seas.
A Utah brand of ancient sea salt, Real Salt, manufactured by Redmond Trading Company, is mined in Redmond and headquartered in Heber City. The operation was started by the Bossardt family in 1958 to mine road and agricultural salt.
"What happened is, some farmers said they'd noticed how healthy their cows were, and started eating it themselves," said Darryl Bosshardt, the company's sales and marketing manager, and the grandson of the company's founder. The family got into the food salt side of things in a serious way in the '90s.
Though salts, sea or table, are all sodium chloride, Bosshardt said, other factors come into play. Most table salt has been heavily refined, with trace minerals removed, and other things added back in. And even sea salts, whether they be from ancient or modern sources, are by no means all the same.
"If you went to the health food store 30 years ago, and said, 'I need sea salt,' you would probably walk out of there with a decent product," said Bosshardt "But in the last few years, with sea salt becoming a buzzword, the term has been distorted by some in the industry. You can get something out of the San Francisco Bay that is de-mineralized and full of mercury and pollutants -- and that is sold as sea salt, but it is not something you want in your body."
He notes that three things are important when trying to choose a healthier salt alternative -- know the source, know what they are taking out of the salt in the manufacturing process, and also know what manufacturers are putting back in.
"If you get salt from a current ocean, then ask, 'Where did it come from?' You can likely get healthier salts from France or Portugal's oceans. But our deposits and others, like most of the Himalayan deposits, come from a time before acid rain and other modern pollutants were factors. That is something I definitely would consider in choosing."
Fans of sea salt draw a comparison between sea salt and table salt to brown rice and white rice. The former, in a natural stage, offers health benefits the latter has removed in prettifying and preserving.
Many fans of sea salt say that the fact they are less processed makes them healthier due to the natural trace minerals. You can even see these minerals. The unusual colorings -- gray, red, black, pink -- are due to trace elements including calcium, potassium and magnesium. The taste tends to be somewhat sweeter than conventional table salt.
Processed salts have additives to keep them flowing and snowy white. For some tasters, this can impart a bitter, chemical tone. One such additive is dextrose, a sugar that keeps the salt flowing and also keeps another common additive, iodine, from turning the salt yellow. Iodine is added to help prevent a type of thyroidal tumor called goiter, now rare in most of the world.
Said Bosshardt: "Many people with high blood pressure also have to keep up their potassium and magnesium and calcium to process it. So if you get processed salt, with those elements removed, from say, potato chips or your can of soup, your body will leach out these elements to process all that salt. The elements are already there in natural salts. It is similar to how you could overdose on vitamin C tablets, but not on oranges."
However, Cefalo does not think the minute amounts of these minerals in sea salts make much, if any, difference.
"You get enough of those elements from just eating a balanced diet," he said. "I don't think they are really going to improve things, if you are eating too much salt to start with."
Even the added iodine in processed salt is not all that essential any longer for American diets, Cefalo noted.
"There is enough iodine that occurs naturally, in such food as shellfish and eggs," he said. "Perhaps very occasionally, if someone follows a very radical diet, people could develop goiters -- but I have never seen one."
Gina Myrberg, who owns Dragonfly Heath Foods on Ogden's 25th Street, and studied at New York's Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York City and other schools, does get a demand for sea salt from her deli and grocery customers. She carries the Real Salt brand.
"Every human body is different and so one particular thing someone chooses to eat may be OK for them, where it might affect someone else's body negatively," Myrberg said of the salt conundrum.
"My body says yes to sea salt in moderation, but it also depends on what food I am consuming with the salt. Putting sea salt on french fries from a fast-food restaurant that have been cooked in hydrogenated or rancid oils is not going to make the fry healthier -- where slicing organic potatoes, drizzling organic olive oil and sprinkling sea salt over them would be a mindful choice. It is not just about the salt, there are so many other factors when it comes to making decisions about what we put in our mouth."
IT'S A MATTER OF TASTE
Regardless of the disputes about the health benefits of sea salts, many seem to simply love how it enhances foods.
Elio Scanu, the chef of South Ogden's Zucca Trattoria restaurant, uses many kinds of salts, depending on the task -- and taste -- at hand.
When he prepares foie gras, for instance, he uses Utah's own Real Salt, harvested in Redmond.
"I use this especially when I need to preserve, to extract water out of elements," Scanu said. "Redmond works extremely well for this."
He also uses grey salts from France, and a smoked salt from England called Maldon. And in some applications, Scanu uses what is touted as the best of the best -- French Fleur de Sel de Guerande.
"Then I have some from Italy, some from Hawaii, from Bolivia, Sicily, the Himalayas. I think the right salt is extremely important to fine cooking. You need different elements for what you are preparing -- not just taste, but texture. I wish I had even more to work with."
Gina Myrberg, owner/operator of Dragonfly Health Foods of Ogden, balances health and flavor in her store recipes. Her goal is to help people eat well with good-tasting recipes and ingredients -- including some sea salt.
Said Myrberg: "We use sea salts when we make our soups or bake. Although, as much as possible, we try to not over-salt our cafe items because we are mindful of people who are mindful about (salt in) their diet. If people want to add more salt to their food, they can consciously do that themselves. We keep our ingredients as basic and organic as possible."
SALTS AROUND THE WORLD
Table -- Most commonly, this is a mined and processed fine-ground salt with some additives to keep it free-flowing. Coarser grounds are essentially the same, only bigger (for example, as is used for pretzels).
Most table salts contain iodine, which was added to salt in the United States in the 1930s to help prevent a tumorous condition called goiter, which can develop in people with thyroid disorders. Iodized salts contain a small amount of the sugar dextrose, to prevent oxidation of the iodine, which leads to yellowing.
Kosher -- This is a coarser-ground salt from various sources; it is used in line with Jewish dietary laws for butchering. Kosher preparation of meats requires that as much blood as possible be removed before cooking, and preserving meats with this sort of salt helps kosher butchers accomplish this.
A favorite in Jewish cuisine preparation overall, kosher salt has also gained fans among chefs for its texture and bright flavor. It is said to taste less salty than traditional table salt, but that is likely due to its coarser grind, rather than a true difference in flavor.
Himalayan pink -- This is a salt that is mined from ancient sea beds in Pakistan. It is often rose or terra cotta in color due to trace minerals such as iron oxide. It has gained a big following with chefs and foodies for its slightly sweet flavor.
Similar salts from ancient seas come from Utah (Real Salt brand), Bolivia, Peru, Poland, and the Murray-Darling basin of Australia.
Celtic (aka grey) -- This one is widely considered the creme de la creme of the sodium chlorides. It is harvested by a 2,000-year-old method from the Celtic Sea marshes in Brittany, France. It is mellow and slightly sweet and highly desired by chefs and gourmands.
Widely considered the Dom Perignon of French sea salt is Fleur de Sel, harvested in the traditional manner exclusively from the salt marshes of Guerande. It is said that Fleur de Sel forms only when the winds blows from the east.
Alaea Hawaiian sea (aka red) -- This salt, harvested from the sea in Hawaii, contains a small amount of reddish clay (alaea) that gives it its distinct color and flavor.
It was once used by native Hawaiians to bless tools and canoes, as well as to season and preserve. It is used in recipes for kalua pig and Hawaiian jerky and has attracted fans of sea salts worldwide.
Kala Namak (aka black) -- Though called salt, this is actually a blend of several minerals from India. It is commonly used in snack foods in the northern part of that nation, as well as dishes from Pakistan.
Kala Namak has a strong sulfur smell due to that mineral being present. The natural form of it comes from a volcanic form of the mineral halite. It is a significant component in an Indian spice blend known as chaat masala, used widely in chutneys, masalas and other traditional dishes.
Sources: www.realsalt.com, interview with chef Elio Scanu of Zucca Trattoria, interview with Darryl Bosshardt of Real Salt, www.gourmetsleuth.com, www.bellaonline.com, www.saltworks.us, www.healthfree.com, www.asianonlinerecipes.com