Are some types of salt better than others? (Table salt vs. kosher salt vs. sea salt vs. himalayan salt)

We shouldn’t have to worry about our salt. We should be able to walk to the store, grab a cheap cylinder, and be on our merry way without worrying about contamination.

I wish that were the case. It would be one less thing to worry about.

But unfortunately, there are good reasons to worry about table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, and Himalayan pink salt. When you consume these products, you aren’t just getting sodium and chloride. You’re getting a bunch of other stuff too.

For instance, most table salts and sea salts contain microplastics—tiny particles of polypropylene, polyethylene, nylon, and other synthetic materials that were never meant for human consumption.

The effects of ingesting microplastics aren’t clear, but the early evidence isn’t comforting. In mouse models, for instance, these particles have been found in their livers, kidneys, and guts.

Heavy metals are another concern in both table salt and pink salt. The amount of aluminum, lead, or cadmium found in salt isn’t especially high, but these metals aren’t healthy at any dose.

And in table salt, the refining process involves a variety of chemicals—chlorine, sulfuric acid, ammonia, and others—that you don’t want exposure to.

I know. It’s a big mess, and it can be stressful to think about. Luckily, there are salt sources that are largely free of these contaminants.

We draw from one of these sources—a traditional non-blast salt mining operation—to get the salt for LMNT. We believe it’s the best way on the planet to get your sodium.

To be clear, just about everything we consume has some level of contamination. That’s just the world we live in. But our goal at LMNT is to draw from the cleanest sources we can find.

Today I want to talk about salt, why people need more of it, and the problems with most commercially-available salt. Let’s get salty.

What Is Salt?

Salt, as most people know it, is actually a molecule named Sodium Chloride. This is denoted by its chemical formula: NaCl. The “Na” stands for sodium and the “Cl” for chloride.

And these two minerals—sodium and chloride—almost always appear together in nature.

Sodium and chloride are both electrolytes, charged elements that conduct electricity to power your nervous system and balance fluids in your body. Both are essential for living and thriving.

That’s why animals evolved a predilection for salt. Something that tasted salty (like blood) would provide these precious minerals.

This predilection is strong. When rats are deprived of salt, they loaf around and lose interest in normal activities. They become depressed.

Throughout human history, salt has traditionally been used for two main purposes:

  1. To provide flavor
  2. As a preservative

Only recently has a third purpose emerged: salt as an essential nutrient. (It’s always been essential, but only lately have we started publishing science on it). By deliberately consuming more salt, we can enhance our wellbeing.

But this isn’t the mainstream view.

Why Sodium Isn’t Bad for You

The mainstream view is that salt should be zealously limited. The US government, for instance, recommends capping sodium intake at 2.3 grams per day, which is around a teaspoon of salt.

But the data behind this recommendation is weak. It’s mostly based on research that found that salt-sensitive rats develop high blood pressure when pumped full of sodium.

The full body of human data tells a different story. It says that:

  • Around 5 grams of sodium (2.5 teaspoons of salt) per day is the sweet spot for heart health.
  • Sodium restriction in line with government guidelines is linked to higher blood pressure.
  • Sweaty athletes lose up to 7 grams of sodium per day. (It needs to be replaced!).
  • Sodium deficiency causes symptoms like headache, fatigue, confusion, and weakness.

There’s a lot more to say about sodium, but I need to move on. Check out this blog to go deeper down this salt mine.

The practical takeaway is that most people don’t get enough salt. As a result, they don’t feel or perform their best.

But we shouldn’t reach for any old salt. Most salt contains contaminants, and the worst offender may be table salt.

The Problems With Table Salt

Table salt is the most common type of commercial salt. It can come from sea or land sources, but the defining feature is that it’s refined.

The refining process typically involves chemicals like chlorine and sulfuric acid that turn the salt white. Trace amounts of these chemicals likely remain in the finished product.

Table salt is also fortified with iodine, an essential mineral lacking in the modern diet. Iodine sufficiency can help prevent a variety of health disorders, including childhood learning disabilities.

Iodine is also necessary for producing thyroid hormones. This can be a good thing, but not always. Calibrating iodine intake based on salt intake can make managing thyroid disorders a challenge, especially when those disorders require medication. Because we realize not everyone will benefit from iodized salt, we don’t put any iodine or iodized salt in our products.

While iodine is a (largely) positive addition to table salt, other compounds are not. Table salt is around 97-99% sodium chloride. What’s the other 3 percent? Mostly, anti-caking agents.

Anti-caking agents are chemicals used to prevent salt from clumping due to its natural moisture content. The problem is, many of these chemicals contain harmful heavy metals and other toxins.

Two commonly used anti-caking agents are sodium aluminosilicate and calcium aluminosilicate. Both of these compounds contain aluminum, a powerful neurotoxin that may contribute to the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease. For instance, a number of papers have found links between aluminum levels in drinking water and Alzheimer's risk.

Sodium ferrocyanide is another anti-caking agent. Ferrocyanide is an iron-bound form of cyanide that appears to be safe for human consumption, but I’d rather not eat it.

What about kosher salt? Kosher salt is just table salt with a larger grain size. It’s not safer, healthier, or less refined.

Table salt comes from sea or land sources and then is refined. So why not just get our salt straight from the sea?

The Problems With Sea Salt

The problems with sea salt can be summarized in a single word: microplastics.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic sized between 1 and 100 nanometers. These particles—which now contaminate the air, water, and salt—are the product of decades of irresponsible plastic manufacturing and disposal.

The world’s oceans now teem with these particles and fibers. The highest concentrations appear to be in Asian waters, but evidence for microplastics has been found in nearly every region that researchers have analyzed.

Even allegedly clean waters (like the Celtic Sea) have been found to contain microplastics. If it’s an ocean, it probably has plastic in it.

And these microplastics, it’s been shown, end up in our table salt and sea salt.

In one 2018 study, researchers found microplastics in 25 different brands of sea salt from all over the world. They determined that the level of plastic in the salt was a good indicator of the level of plastic in the water.

Should you be worried about consuming microplastics? Although occupational data has linked inhaling microplastics to respiratory issues, there’s no human evidence that ingesting it is dangerous.

But there is animal evidence. In animal models, ingested microplastics have reached multiple organ systems, including crossing the blood-brain barrier, placenta, and cell membranes.

That’s not comforting. I think it’s smart to play it safe and minimize exposure to microplastics.

And that means looking to land sources of salt. How about that pink stuff?

The Problems With Himalayan Salt

Himalayan pink salt comes from salt mines in the Punjab region of Pakistan, an area bordered by the Himalayan mountain range. Pink salt is mined from other regions too, but most of it comes from Pakistan.

Himalayan salt is technically sea salt, but it’s not modern sea salt. It’s sea salt from hundreds of millions of years ago when the region was underwater.

That means microplastics are of little concern. So that’s a plus. 

Himalayan salt is popular these days because it contains a range of minerals: potassium, calcium, iron, copper, molybdenum, iodine, zinc, cobalt, manganese, and many others. It’s marketed as a trace mineral complex.

But to get meaningful amounts of these minerals, researchers estimate you’d have to consume about 6 teaspoons of pink salt per day. That’s about double what I recommend as a baseline, and I’m all about staying salty.

The real concern with Himalayan salt, however, is the potential for heavy metal exposure. A recent Australian study found heavy metals like aluminum, cadmium, and lead in 31 commercial pink salts. One product—a pink salt from Peru—contained enough lead to exceed the maximum contaminant level set by the Australian government.

Picking a Healthy Salt

All salt has plenty of sodium chloride. But most commercial salts also contain harmful ingredients you don’t want entering your body.

You want as few of these anti-caking agents, microplastics, and heavy metals in your salt as possible. The less of these you consume, the better.

No salt will be 100% free of impurities, but research indicates that traditionally-mined salt is the closest we’ll get to pure NaCl.

That’s why we use traditionally-mined salt from non-blast operations in LMNT. We source our salt in a way that minimizes impurities.