The crowd milling around the salt boutique is a mix of young bohemians and bourgeois baby boomers, all looking to add some flavor to their lives. The description of every product is written in transcendent prose that describes how each salt formed in a distinct, yet ‘natural’ environment, free of human interference. This salt was then harvested, often times with wooden tools, and transported thousands of miles for your purchasing pleasure. These specialty salts come in a variety of colors and have distinctive names representing their proud origins. For these distinctive salts, you can expect to spend about fifty times more per ounce than you would pay for your average table salt at a supermarket.
So what makes these specialty salts so much better? Specialty salt stores proclaim that their salts are (1) healthier and (2) tastier because they were formed in a natural environment and were not subjected to the processing that table salt experiences. This line of thought holds that when salt is skimmed off the top of a small Parisian pond, it is jam packed with various trace elements and minerals that are all part of a balanced breakfast. In contrast, when generic salt companies mine natural salt, they refine it, stripping the salt of trace elements that are both flavorful and essential to human health. The specialty salt boutiques claim that the refining technique, done by human hands and machines, results in a salt that lacks both taste and nutritional value.
This claim is not entirely accurate. While refining does remove many trace elements, this has little to no effect on salt’s nutritional value. On average, a typical person will receive their nutritional fill of trace elements (e.g. selenium, zinc) from the eggs, vegetables, and meats they might put specialty salts on, rather than the salt itself. Based on the nutritional facts from one specialty salt, you would have to eat over 200 teaspoons of salt in order to receive your daily zinc intake.1 So in order to receive a healthy dose of trace elements from this specialty salt, a person would have to consume a lethal dose of sodium.
The refining procedure doesn’t just strip trace elements from salt—in fact, it actually adds a dietary necessity: iodine. During the refining process, most table salt is fortified with iodine, an element related to thyroid function. Iodine is present in eggs and sea vegetables, but if these foods aren’t prevalent in your diet, adding standard table salt to your meal can actually prevent health issues like hypothyroidism. The same cannot be said about adding a specialty salt, which hasn’t been refined and fortified with iodine.
Specialty salt boutiques suggest that the refining process also alters the taste of table salt. Despite the refining process, both types of salt, whether it’s found in a typical supermarket or a trendy Lower East Side boutique, are chemically similar, both with a chemical content of ~ 95% sodium chloride. This chemical similarity appears to be reflected in blind taste tests. Both specialty salts and generic salts contain varying amounts of other common elements, including calcium and potassium, but when a variety of salts were dissolved into a liquid, people could not distinguish one salt from the other.2 Despite the presence of trace elements and other unrefined minerals, it does not appear that specialty salts have a discernibly different taste when physical elements like texture, size, and color are removed.
While there are similarities, specialty salts do have a leg up on table salt in overall appearance. The refining process streamlines table salt so that all grains are the same size and color. Specialty salts, in their natural, unaltered form, can appear in a variety of sizes, textures, and colors. If you want to add a splash of color to a dish, specialty salts are your new painter’s palette.
These bright, colorful grains do not necessarily add flavor to your dish, but the larger size and rough textures of specialty salts can be beneficial. Meats and vegetables don’t absorb these large, unsmoothed salt crystals as they do generic table salt. The result is that specialty salt crystals tend to sit on the surface of your food, so when you ravenously bite into your meat or vegetable, you taste dynamic bursts of crunchy salt, rather than a static, pervasive layer of salt. These bursts of flavor make specialty salts a good ‘finishing’ touch to many dishes—that is, it will only make a difference when they are applied after the dish is cooked, when it is less likely for the salt to dissolve into the dish. Specialty salts are a good finishing touch due more to the size and texture of their crystals rather than the presence of any trace metals or minerals. But those coarse sea salts from your everyday grocery store will add the same finishing touch and bursts of flavor at a fraction of the price.
I’ll admit the image of a group of French villagers waking up to skim salt off the nearby pond is more aesthetically appealing than mining and refining salt from an underground mine. But does the image come with any of the claimed benefits of better health and taste? Overall the claim that the trace elements and minerals in specialty salts have any health or taste benefits is most likely just an illusion. Those French villagers live quite a natural and beautiful life, but I do hope that they are supplementing it with a touch of iodine-fortified table salt.
1. ~1.8 mg of Zn according to World Health Organization, Trace elements in human nutrition and health, 1996. p.89
2. What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, Robert L. Wolke, p. 53-54