SINGAPORE - Salt is something that few people can live without, though too much of it is a bad thing. But if choosing sea salt over plain old table salt makes you feel that you have done some justice to your health, it is time to think again.
Yes, sea salt comes from the sea, is less processed and more flavourful. It is more expensive, sometimes giving rise to the misconception that it is thus a better product. Many chefs also swear by it.
But, health-wise, experts say that sea salt is no better than table salt as it contains as much sodium as table salt.
As a high-sodium diet has been linked to high blood pressure and other health problems, it is best to eat less of any type of salt.
Salt is the main source of sodium in our lives.
Other sources include soya sauce, monosodium glutamate (MSG), preservatives and salt substitutes.
Table salt vs fancy salt
Apart from table salt, the other common varieties of salt have fancy names including sea salt, fleur de sel and kosher salt.
All salt comes from either the sea or salt deposits.
The difference between sea salt and table salt lies in how they are produced and their texture.
Sea salt is usually produced through evaporation of sea water.
Depending on the water source, some trace minerals and elements, such as magnesium, may be left behind after evaporation, said Ms Chloe Ong, dietitian with CanHOPE Counselling & Support Services at Parkway Cancer Centre.
Sea salt is also coarser than table salt, which is mined from underground salt deposits and is heavily processed to eliminate minerals and to give it a fine texture.
Iodine, an essential mineral for maintaining a healthy thyroid, is often added to table salt, said Ms Ong.
Kosher salt - which takes its name from its use in the koshering process to make food according to Jewish dietary rules - is chunkier and coarser than table salt and usually does not contain iodine.
The texture and shape of the various salt types may vary but their sodium content is similar.
Ms Ong said: "Sea salt and table salt are basically the same in terms of nutritional value. By weight, they contain the same amount of sodium."
Table salt, also known as sodium chloride, is made up of roughly 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride.
Most other types of salt contain a similar amount of sodium - ranging between 38g and 39g per 100g of salt, said Ms Jenny Ng, principal dietitian from Mind Your Diet, which offers food consultancy services at Novena Medical Centre.
Fleur de sel, hand-harvested sea salt that is prized and therefore expensive, contains slightly less sodium - between 30g and 37g per 100g of salt - than table salt or regular sea salt, said Ms Ng.
However, she added: "It wouldn't be considered a healthier option if consumers use more of fleur de sel to flavour food to get the same taste as when using table salt."
While table salt, sea salt or kosher salt are not much different in sodium content by weight, there is a difference by volume as sea salt and kosher salt are usually coarser than table salt.
So if you keep to a recipe that calls for a teaspoon of salt, for instance, you will consume less sodium if you use the larger-grain kosher salt instead of fine-grain table salt.
That is, if you are willing to settle for less saltiness in your food.
Ms Ng said: "We season food according to taste and not always according to the volume stipulated in recipes, so we may end up adding the same amount by taste, or even more as coarse salt is harder to manipulate and measure."
Like sugar, salt also has substitutes.
But as many salt substitutes contain potassium chloride in place of sodium chloride, they may not be an option for those with damaged kidneys.
Those with kidney problems may not be able to get rid of excess potassium, which can cause side effects, such as irregular heartbeat, nausea and even cardiac arrest and death in rare cases.
"Individuals with kidney problems need to seek professional advice before using salt substitutes," warned Ms Ng.
Otherwise, salt substitutes, such as Pansalt, can be an alternative to salt, if you use them in moderation.
Some salt substitutes still contain sodium, though less than in table salt.
And, remember, sea salt or seasoned salt, such as garlic salt or onion salt, are not salt substitutes.
If possible, use as little salt or salt substitutes as possible so that you will get used to less salty food, said Ms Ng.
She said: "Salt should be avoided in cooking as best as possible, as sodium already occurs naturally in most foods, such as fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and dairy products.
"The bulk of our sodium intake actually comes from seasoning, gravy, fast food, instant food and preserved food."
Salt can be found in abundance in processed food, such as canned soup, canned tuna, hot dogs and processed cheese.
Avoid or eat less of these types of food. Be aware that some kinds of food, such as bread rolls, bak kwa or barbecued pork slices and cold cuts can be high in sodium, even if they may not taste very salty to you.
Eat more unprocessed food, such as fruit and vegetables, and use less condiments, such as ketchup and soya sauce.
A tablespoon of soya sauce, for instance, can have more than 1,000mg of sodium, which is close to half of an adult's daily guideline for salt consumption of less than 2,300mg.
Instead, use natural seasoning, such as lemon juice and zest, herbs, spices, garlic and pepper to flavour foods, dietitians advised.
"Your taste buds will slowly get used to the taste," said Ms Ong.
With time, you may even find yourself rejecting the taste of very salty food.
Ms Ng said: "We are born with no taste preference. We acquire the taste for salty, spicy or sour food as we grow. Hence, our liking for salty food can be adjusted by introducing a low-salt diet."
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