I used to buy salt in one form only: white, iodized, and in a blue cylinder.
Today though, artisanal salt comes in a variety of colors and flavors. Pretty and trendy pink Himalayan salt—the small granules resembling bits of rose quartz—can increasingly be found in our kitchens (not to mention in our lamps!) but is this salt healthy for us and for our planet?
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There are two main types of salt, explains nutrition consultant and natural chef Jessica Wilson. There's sea salt, which we get by evaporating away sea water, and mountain or rock salt, which we extract from salt-water lakes or mine from places where salted bodies of water used to be. Pink Himalayan salt is a rock salt primarily mined in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in the Punjab region of Pakistan. Perhaps because of its pleasing rosy tone or its exotic origins, it's become a foodie darling lately (Himala Salt is a good, organic brand to try out). But is it better for you?
From a health and sustainability standpoint, Wilson points out there’s no proven benefit to ingesting this colorful condiment over other salts.
While it’s primarily composed of sodium chloride, pink Himalayan salt also contains potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, oxygen, hydrogen, fluoride, and iodine, and gets its distinct pink tone from other trace minerals found in the deep underground salt deposits of the region—but that doesn't mean it's a miracle vitamin.
“Himalayan salt is said by some to be more nutritious because of its mineral content,” says Wilson, though, “there is little evidence to back this claim and the amount of trace minerals present in Himalayan salt is very small. The amount of sodium chloride you would have to ingest to get a significant amount of these trace minerals would counter any benefit.”
According to tradition, true Himalayan salt is mined by hand and avoids the use of mechanical devices or explosives, Wilson explains. So while it is extracted responsibly with little to no polluting byproducts, and the expansive deposits of the salt could continue to fill our shakers and grinders for centuries to come, Himalayan salt loses sustainability points for the vast number of miles it has to travel from the mines to our plates.
“As with many other gourmet products, there are ethical concerns that have been associated with the harvesting conditions and worker’s safety,” says Wilson. “My suggestion is always the same: Do your research and learn about the company you purchase your products from. This can be time consuming so an easier alternative is to shop from a store whose buyers you trust. Let your local natural foods store do the work for you. Instead of refusing to buy a product based on ethical concerns, support those producers who are doing it right.”
Sodium is an important mineral and one of the nutrients that acts as an electrolyte in our bodies, helping our cells and organs function properly. For people with certain health concerns, especially conditions of the kidney and heart, it is important to talk to a doctor when considering the amount of salt to include in your diet, because though we need some sodium, moderation is key.
Since most whole foods naturally contain some sodium, Wilson advises that salt of any kind be used for just a little seasoning, and be added last to a meal. Less salt is required after food preparation when it is added on top of a dish, and using salt with a larger flake—such as coarsely ground Himalayan salt or kosher salt—as the increased surface area of these salts give your taste buds packs a more dramatic impact, while letting you sprinkle less on your plate.
As for the iodine added to table salt, Wilson notes that while iodine plays an important role in our thyroid health, we can switch to a non-iodized salt such as Himalayan salt and still get enough of this essential element from foods such as fish, sea vegetables, dairy products, and beans: “A diet rich in whole foods would not require iodine supplementation," she says, "and therefore a person would not be missing out by passing on that iodized table salt.”
In addition to pink Himalayan salt, Wilson recommends trying out these salt options to spice up the dinner table.
Kosher Salt: A white salt with a larger and coarser grain than typical table salt, kosher salt typically does not contain added iodine and makes for a great all-purpose salt during cooking or as a garnish.
Fleur de Sel: This light and snowy-gray sea salt is harvested in France from the surface of seawater. It is typically used as a garnish and finishing salt rather than during the cooking process.
Kala Namak: Also known as Himalayan black salt, this volcanic rock salt has a sulfur content that imparts a distinct pungent odor and is commonly used in Indian dishes.
Alaea Salt: This traditional Hawaiian sea salt gets its pink and brown color from volcanic red clay and is a mainstay in native cuisine and dishes such as poke.
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