Besides all the incredible things it can do for food, salt is of great importance to human and animal health. So much so that we couldn’t survive without it. But what exactly is salt and how is it made? How much salt do we need and why is too much a bad thing? And what about all the different kinds of salt you see in the supermarket? Table, kosher and sea are just a few examples, but what’s the difference, and does it matter which one you choose? Read on as we offer some insight into the magic and misconceptions of salt.
What is salt?
In chemical terminology, salt is an ionic compound, sodium chloride, which consists of positively charged sodium and negatively charged chlorine that are bound together by electrical attraction.
While “table salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, they don’t mean the same thing. Table salt is a crystal-like compound abundant in nature; sodium is a mineral and one of the chemical compounds found in salt.
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Why do we need salt?
Salt, especially the sodium ions, is essential to the functioning of every cell in our bodies. Sodium facilitates sending signals to our nerves and muscles and helps sustain the fluid content inside and outside the blood cells. Too little or too much can cause cells to malfunction.
What about the effects of too much salt?
While we need salt to function, too much can be a bad thing. Hypertension can occur when a high-sodium diet draws water into the bloodstream, causing high blood pressure, and in turn, forcing the heart to work too hard. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can raise the risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease and blindness.
But how much is too much?
According to a June 2021 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report from the US Food & Drug Administration, adults are recommended to limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, which is equal to about 1 teaspoon of table salt.
Most of us, however, consume about 3,400 mg daily. Despite popular belief, most of our dietary sodium comes from packaged or prepared foods, not the salt added while cooking or eating.
What are the different types of salt?
Table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, curing and brining salt, and specialty and seasoned salts are some of the main categories of salt.
What about texture?
The texture of salt makes a big difference.
For baking, fine salt dissolves easily, which makes it a preferred salt. Besides contributing flavor, salt reacts with the glutens in wheat to make the dough more elastic. Table salt consists of fine cube-shaped flakes.
For cooking, coarse salt is often the salt of choice because it is easier than table salt to take a pinch with your fingers and add it to food. Plus, it adheres to food better. Other coarse salts include flaky salt, a flat-grained coarse salt that was originally cubic in shape and has been flattened, which dissolves faster and is blended in more easily. Kosher salt is also a flat-grained coarse salt.
Sea salt takes its form depending on where and how it is produced, resulting in flakes, fine crystals or coarse crystals. Specialty salts like Himalayan pink salt can vary in their subtle variations in flavor and textures. Because of these variances converting between sea salt and other salts in recipes can be unreliable.
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