Salt gives even the blandest of foods a new lease of life. Chefs can’t live without it and are often filmed using crystals or flakes of salt to enhance the natural flavours of their creations, whether fish or meat or veg.
There are many varieties of salt. The most commonly used are table salt, sea salt, Kosher salt and Himalayan pink salt. But take a walk down the condiments aisle of your local supermarket and you’ll be sure to find others. In Japan alone, there are thought to be 4,000 types of salt on offer.
Anyone who’s watched the second episode of Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, in which chef Samin Nosrat uses an eye-watering amount of salt to season some cucumber (we’re talking handfuls), might be left with the impression that some salts are better for us than others. But it’s not the case.
“Cooking shows can normalise excessive salt use,” Azmina Govindji, a dietician and British Dietetic Association (BDA) spokesperson, tells HuffPost UK.
Rather than following the lead of chefs who liberally sprinkle sea salt on to food, she advises us to take such methods of food prep with, ahem, “a pinch of salt”.
Whether you’re reaching for table, pink Himalayan, sea or Kosher salt, they all contain roughly the same level of sodium, she adds. “There is no robust evidence to suggest than any type is better for you than another.”
As of yet, there are no official studies that have compared the health effects of different types of salt. This means any health claims that brands make about their salt products have no scientific basis and are not approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Bahee Van der Bor, a specialist paediatric dietitian and BDA spokesperson, agrees with Govindji and urges people to treat all salts the same in terms of how much to use. The main message: don’t be too liberal with it.
“It’s a little bit like sugar. Claims that there is a bit of a particular mineral or antioxidant in one type of cooking salt doesn’t mean that you can use it generously,” says Van de Bor. “By all means, use it to beautify your kitchen counter, but do use them sparingly or you can very easily exceed your daily allowance.”
Which salt does what?
When it comes to buying salt, the size of the crystal tends to determine the saltiness. If the crystals are small (as table salt tends to be), they dissolve quickly in the mouth and you can taste the saltiness immediately. Bigger flakes dissolve more slowly, so are generally less intense in flavour.
Table salt is the stuff that you tend to buy in grinders from the supermarket – it’s found on dinner tables (at home and in restaurants) up and down the country, and consists of small crystals packed together. Typically, it’s used during cooking or baking to bring out the flavour in the food.
Kosher salt is a coarse salt often used in professional kitchens, typically for seasoning meat as the large grains cling to the surface well. And sea salt (think Maldon) consists of irregularly shaped flakes with a more subtle taste. This salt is often used as a finishing salt (you add it when your dinner is ready to eat), with the larger crystals adding texture to food.
Then there’s Himalayan pink salt, the most Instagram-worthy of the lot. It’s pink in colour because of the presence of trace amounts of iron oxide. “There are claims that pink Himalayan salt has more minerals, and that these minerals provide health benefits,” says Govindji. But if you do get extra minerals, you’d need to consume enough of the salt to give you a benefit, she adds, and the adverse effects of the sodium load would far outweigh any benefits.
Referring to all the “trendy salts” out there, she concludes: “If you’re using them because you believe there’s a health benefit, you’re wasting your money.”
How much salt is good for us?
High salt intake has been linked to high blood pressure which in turn is bad news for the heart – it can lead to heart disease and stroke (although conversely there is some evidence that suggests low-salt diets could lead to increased risk of heart disease). Consuming too much salt has also been shown to increase the risk of stomach cancer.
Guidelines state adults should be eating no more than 6g of salt a day (2.4g sodium) – which is around one teaspoon of table salt. For children under 11 years old this should be far less and babies shouldn’t have any at all as their kidneys can’t cope.
A number of public health campaigns over the years have urged us to lower our salt intake – which has dropped in the UK from 12g per day to 7-8g per day. Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, told the Guardian that this drop has been accompanied by a fall in average blood pressure of the population.
Salt or sodium?
Some food labels only state the sodium content rather than salt – and these are different. Adults should eat no more than 2.4g of sodium per day, equivalent to 6g of salt.
To convert sodium to salt, you need to multiply the sodium amount by 2.5. For example, 1g of sodium per 100g is 2.5 grams of salt per 100g.
It’s widely agreed we shouldn’t be cutting salt out of our diets completely. But it’s not a nutrient you need to go out of your way to consume daily because it’s already in so many foods that you buy from the supermarket.
Salt can be good for us in small doses as it contains both sodium and chloride, which help to regulate fluids in our body. A modest salt intake with a good intake of potassium from fruit and veg is helpful and important for regulating blood pressure, says Van de Bor, who presents the podcast Kids Nutrition.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has ambitious recommendations that we should all be aiming to have no more than 3g of salt per day by 2025, and that people at risk of heart disease should already be halving their salt intake.
Key to this will be cutting salt content in supermarket foods, something the campaign group Action on Salt is pushing hard for – and for us all to become more mindful of our salt use at home.
How to cut down on salt
It’s believed that around 75% of the salt we consume has been added to our food before we even buy it. Hidden salt can be found in anything from ready meals, cheese, processed meats and butter, to takeaways, cereal and bread. And here lies the problem. “What people truly don’t realise is that it’s not always the salt used in home cooking that’s the culprit,” says Van der Bor.
When you are cooking at home with fresh ingredients, be mindful of not using too many salty additions – for example, salt, stocks, and/or a cheesy sauce. Likewise go easy on soy sauce, mustard, pickles, mayonnaise and other table sauces where possible.
““Expensive gourmet salts are often misconstrued as healthier than regular table salt, when they cause just as much damage to our health."”
To curb your salt use, you could use black pepper instead or add fresh herbs and spices. Rely on other flavours to carry your dishes like garlic, ginger, chilli and lime, and bake vegetables rather than boiling to try and bring out their flavour. If you’re worried about the salt content in ready-made stock or supermarket bread, you could have a go at making your own.
Sonia Pombo, a nutritionist at Action on Salt, urges people to wise up to the misconception that some salts are ‘healthier’ than others: “Expensive gourmet salts are often misconstrued as healthier than regular table salt, when in fact they cause just as much damage to our health.
“Some companies make outlandish claims that these salts provide a ‘healthy’ source of essential minerals, but this is merely a marketing ploy to get you to part with your money.”
She concludes: “Before you consider posh varieties, save yourself the money. Or better still, try to limit the amount you use altogether, as your food more than likely has salt already added to it by the manufacturer or chef.”