Sea Salt and the Salt “Problem”

Sea salt and table salt.  All the sea salt in the world, whether found deep within mountain ranges, from salt flats, or evaporated by sun and wind in salt marshes, has its origin in the oceans and seas.   Ocean water contains the complete array of earth elements, more than eighty in all.  Water—oxygen and hydrogen—accounts for 95% of the oceans and seas, with minerals explaining the remaining 5%.  Of these, the vast majority is salt, the chemical sodium chloride.


We think of salt as sodium, but it actually contains more chloride:  Excluding sea salt’s moisture content, which generally runs about 5%, natural sea salts are roughly 54% chlorine, 30% sodium, 4% magnesium, 2 ½ % sulfur, and 1% for each calcium and potassium.  The remaining 7%-8% is comprised of 75 or so other minerals and trace minerals.1  As Mark Bitterman notes, nine of the major eleven elements of the body are found in the primary eleven elements of the oceans and seas.    The minerals in sea salt, unlike table salt, not only appear in a similar ratio to be the body, but they are also balanced and in a natural form that is easy to assimilate.


Table salt, in contrast, is highly refined salt; the moisture and complementary minerals are removed and anti-caking agents are added back for easy pouring.  Most mass-produced salt is used for hundreds of industrial purposes.  Only three percent of worldwide industrial salt production goes to food, with a large share simply used for road de-icing as well as industrial and chemical uses.2


Table salt, then, is sea salt that has been refined (heated to temperatures as high as 1200F degrees) and bleached to create dehydrated white, uniform crystals of pure sodium chloride.  Table salt, NaCl, is similar to white sugar, C,H2,O :  both are pure chemicals with the trace elements and moisture extracted.  To refi salt, the FDA allows companies such as Morton to add up to 2 percent anti-caking agents, needed to prevent the fine uniform crystals from clumping.   Additives usually include the anti-caking agents, calcium silicate, sodium ferrocyanide, or magnesium carbonate; and, less often, aluminum calcium, ammonium citrate, ferric silicon dioxide, magnesium silicate, propylene glycol, silicate, sodium aluminosilicate, and calcium phosphate.3 Other ingredients called humectants may also be added to prevent the anti-caking agents themselves from clumping and caking.


Iodine is a key mineral needed to prevent goiter.  It is naturally present in sea salt, but because it is a highly unstable element, it quickly evaporates away during the industrial refining process.  To prevent goiter, iodine (as potassium iodide, potassium iodate, sodium iodide, or sodium iodate) is often added back to table salt after refining is complete.  Sugar as dextrose and/or other ingredients such as sodium thiosulfate, sodium carbonate, or sodium bicarbonate4 are then added to stabilize iodine and make it bind to refined salt’s fine uniform crystals.  The popular Morton brand of table salt, much of which is produced from San Francisco Bay brine, is generally iodine as potassium iodide with the anti-caking agent, calcium silicate.


As mentioned above, sea salt is a whole food that is balanced to meet the body’s general mineral needs and in a form that can be readily assimilated.  After eons when people thrived on natural sea salt, we might wonder how the body is able to adapt in such a short time to modern table salt.  While part of our modern salt cravings may relate to our desire for grounding in a quick-paced, electric smog, stressful world, I suspect another part of our salt cravings may be rooted our body’s search for the essential minerals in sea salt that are refined away.  And, perhaps part of the reason that as a nation our health is suffering from consuming too much salt is that table salt creates imbalances in the body—the body may not be able to handle concentrated sodium chloride that lacks the complementary minerals of natural sea salt.  We can never fully know the implications for the body of eating fractured versus whole foods.  But, before we consider the problems related to salt consumption, let’s take a brief look at the important role that natural sea salt plays to promote good health.


Some important functions of salt in the body.  Using an Eastern lens, Chinese Five-Phase Theory5 tells us that salt is associated with the water element; the winter season of the year; the kidneys, bladder, and adrenals; the bones and teeth, and the ears and hearing; and, with will power and vitality and, conversely fear.  Like winter, salt is cooling and contracting, and its direction of energy in the body is inward and downward.   Salt crystals bring clarity and focus to thinking.  Salt moistens and softens; it stimulates the kidneys and adrenals (salty foods can perk us up when we are tired).  Mineral-rich salt strengthens the bones and teeth when used moderately, but in excess salt weakens the bones and the kidneys.6


Salt brings balance to the body in many ways.  It is contractive to counter the many expansive foods in our modern diet—refined sugar, refined flour products, sugary drinks, and alcohol.  As a contractive food, it may seem surprising that salt also goes well with other contractive foods like eggs and meat.  The reason is that meat and eggs, as well as grains and beans, are acid-forming foods.  Salt with its rich mineral composition is an alkalizing antidote; it also sharpens the taste of these otherwise bland foods.


So, apart from its ability to preserve food, taste is the obvious reason we put salt on the food we eat.  We are programmed to like the salty taste.   We crave “salty” second only to “sweet.”  Salt enhances “sweet” and tempers the flavors “bitter” and “sour.”  Salting home-cooked food also makes sense because salt aids digestion (chloride and hydrochloric acid), particularly of heavy proteins and starchy foods, potatoes and grains.   Finally, like sea vegetables and when used in cooking or at the table, sea salt can add minerals to vegetables and other home-cooked whole foods.


The Western lens and modern science adds additional perspective about salt:  Chemistry tells us that salt combines with water to create vital electrolytes needed to conduct electricity for cellular communication and brain/neurological function.  Salt helps us focus; it helps us think.


Both the sodium and chloride in salt perform other vital functions in the body.  The three major fluid systems of the body, the blood, lymph, and extracellular systems are salty and require salt for normal functioning.   Sodium is needed for the regulation of many body functions—for the nervous system; muscle contraction and proper heart function; fluid balance; digestion and the absorption of nutrients; the construction of some hormones; and, the regulation of blood pressure, to list a few.


Unlike sodium, chloride, the dominant component in sea salt, cannot be obtained through other foods.7 But, like sodium, chloride is an electrolyte supporting nerve and muscle function.  It is needed in a myriad of other body functions:    Chloride helps maintain proper blood pressure, volume and Ph balance; and, it supports digestion and immunity.


The Salt “Problem”

If you have read this far, you know by now that I believe a key problem with salt is the kind we use.  After all, we consume no more salt (in fact less) than a century ago, so why should salt be a problem?8. Granted, some of our modern health problem with salt may be related to lifestyle factors and to our potassium-deficient dietary habits (see potassium/sodium discussion that follows).  But shouldn’t we also question how the body reacts to pure sodium chloride as a substitute for the mineral-rich sea salts that have always been part of traditional diets?


We are advised today to remove the salt shaker from the table.  Yet, the shaker contributes ever so modestly to our salt consumption.    The problem appears to be not so much the salt shaker but that we purchase so much food that is prepared by others.  These commercial foods are designed to enhance taste and pleasure (blending salt, sugar, and fat) so that we come back for more, again and again.   When we purchase foods prepared by others, whether at the grocery store, restaurants, or fast food establishments, we relinquish our control over our salt intake.  Statistics regarding our modern food habits help to put the salt shaker into perspective:


  • About 10%  of our sodium intake comes naturally and directly through the whole foods we eat (largely from meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish; sea vegetables; and high-sodium vegetables like celery, beets, and carrots…see Table 1 that follows);
  • A little more than 5% is added through home cooking;
  • Roughly 75%-80% of the salt we consume is hidden in processed and restaurant foods.
  • Only 5% is added as a condiment at the table, mostly as refined table salt from a shaker ((My blended estimates from figures quoted in The Textbook of Natural Medicine, 1763.))


Salt warnings are generally based on scientific studies that show a link between salt and high blood pressure (salt helps to regulate blood volume, blood pressure, and the flexibility of blood vessels9 ) and, to a lesser degree, a link between salt and cancer.  But these studies do not use sea salt for testing.  We do not know if sea salt would lead to salt sensitivity and hypertension in the same way that table salt appears to.  In defense of this research, I have to allow that, since table salt is what we generally consume, it is the logical choice for research.  But should the finding of scientific studies that use table salt be extrapolated to naturally-harvested sea salts?  And, shouldn’t conclusions about salt intake also be made within the context of a person’s overall diet:  in particular, how much potassium a person consumes relative to sodium?


Sodium in the context of potassium we consume.   If you recall from high school science, the body needs to maintain potassium and sodium (the sodium/potassium pump) in a delicate balance to transport fluids in and out of every cell, to create energy for cellular/neurological communication, and generally to sustain life.  Leaving science aside, it is sufficient here to say simply that the body needs adequate potassium to balance sodium.


Many scientific studies suggest that a diet high in sodium and low in potassium is linked to high blood pressure, cancer, and cardiovascular disease and that a diet high potassium and low in sodium can significantly reduce the risk of these diseases.  While excessive sodium and deficient potassium often lead to high blood pressure, particularly for people who are salt-sensitive,10 studies also suggest that simply cutting back on sodium does not go far enough.  To lower blood pressure, lowering sodium intake must be coupled with higher levels of potassium.11


Unfortunately, for most people the potassium/sodium ratio is out of balance both due to how much salt (hidden in foods) we consume, and to how little potassium (as we skimp on potassium-rich fruits and vegetables) makes it into our diet.  Experts believe that we need about 1 gram of sodium per day, yet the typical American consumes 10 times this amount.12 Both epidemiological and experimental research suggest that for good health, a person’s potassium-to-sodium (K:Na) ratio should be at least 5:1.  For most Americans (from our reliance upon highly salted prepared products and restaurant foods), this ratio is tipped 10-fold in the opposite direction:  The typical American’s potassium/sodium ratio is 1:2, rather than >5:1 as recommended by health professionals.13


Table 1 on the following page is my effort to illustrate the favorable potassium/sodium relationship that results naturally from a whole foods diet:  All unprocessed foods—fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, seeds, as well as meat, poultry, and fish that I randomly sampled —have favorable K:Na ratios.  The opposite is true of all processed foods—they all contain far too much sodium relative to potassium.  A bagel, for example, with only 74 milligrams of potassium and 360 milligrams of sodium would have to have >1800 milligrams (360×5) of potassium to bring it to the >5:1 recommended guideline.  Thus, it is easy to see how consuming refined carbohydrates and other processed foods can quickly lead to potassium deficiencies.


Table 1 illustrates several specific ideas:


  • Most fruits and vegetables are extremely rich in potassium with potassium/sodium ratios that are many multiples above the K:Na guideline of  >5:1.
  • While most fruits have very high K:Na ratios because they have little or no sodium, this is not the case with all vegetables.  Some vegetables like celery and beets are not only rich sources of potassium, but they also have a meaningful sodium component.  This explains the generally lower K:Na ratios of these and other vegetables compared to most fruits.
  • Dried fruits like raisins and peaches are particularly high in potassium.  Through a process called biological transmutations, a raisin has 4-5 times the potassium of a fresh grape.  Drying fruits also elevates sodium levels, however, so that the K:Na ratios of raisins and dried peaches are no more favorable than for their fresh counterparts.


Table 1:  Potassium/Sodium Content of Selected Foods

(milligrams per serving)

Food Portion Potassium Sodium Potassium/Sodium
Apple 1 159 1 159
Avocado 1 1204 21 57
Banana 1 451 1 451
Grapes 1 cup 296 3 99
Raisins 1 cup 1362 47 29
Orange 1 237 0 *
Peach 1 171 0 *
Peach, Dried 10 Halves 1295 9 144
Asparagus 1 cup 404 2 202
Beets 1 cup 440 98 4
Broccoli 1 cup 286 24 12
Carrots 1 cup 356 38 9
Celery 1 cup 340 106 3
Kale 1 cup 299 29 10
Romaine 1 cup 162 4 41
Peas 1 cup 357 7 51
Baked Potato 1 782 6 130
Winter Squash 1 cup 945 2 473
Yams 1 cup 1508 17 89
Legumes, Beans, Grains, Seeds    
Garbanzos, Dried 1 cup 1516 52 29
Kidney Beans (Canned, in Water) 1 cup 629 6 104
Brown Rice 1 cup 420 16 26
Sunflower Seeds 1 cup 1334 4 334
Poultry, Meat, Fish, Eggs, Dairy        
Chicken Breast ½ 319 91 4
Hamburger 4 oz. 295 78 4
Beef Frankfurter 1 71 461 -6x
Flounder 3 oz. 307 69 4
Salmon 3 oz. 417 37 11
Tuna (in Water) 1 can 518 588
Eggs 1 65 69
Yogurt, Plain 1 cup 351 105 3
Prepared Foods  
Bagel 1 74 360 -5x
Corn  Flakes 1 ¼ cup 26 351 -14x
Cake Donut 1 29 160 -5x
Cheerios 1 ¼ cup 101 307 -3x
Chicken Broth 1 cup 210 776 -3x
Black Bean Soup 1 cup 1198 273 -4x
Vegetable Soup 1 cup 823 209 -4x

Source:  Pathways4Health, computed from the  Nutrition Almanac by Lavon Dunne.


  • Other plant foods such as whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are rich sources of potassium.
  • Animal flesh is also a good source of potassium and, while also a good source of sodium, it has a healthy K:Na ratio.  This is also true of most fish, with the exception of tuna.
  • The natural sodium in animal-based foods explains why early hunter/nomads did not need to search for salt as did later agrarian cultures…animal flesh provided the salt needed for survival.

Obviously, what Table 1 illustrates is  that the way to boost potassium relative to sodium is to prepare food at home whenever possible.  If you do not cook, try to consume large quantities of fruits and vegetables.  When shopping for packaged foods in the grocery store, read labels for both the sodium and the potassium content.  Become familiar with foods with a favorable potassium/sodium profile.  Many experts believe that boosting potassium relative to sodium can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cancer.  Potassium is one of the keys reasons that anti-cancer diets stress consuming large quantities of fruits and vegetables  across a color spectrum.


And, a final comment on salt and health:  Recognizing the importance of sodium in the context of potassium intake, it seems logical that to interpret any study about salt and high blood pressure/cardiovascular disease, or salt and cancer, we need to know not only a subject’s salt intake, but also how much potassium a person consumes.


Copyright 2011

  1. Calculated from Mark Bitterman, Salted, 33. []
  2. Bitterman, 25. []
  3. Bitterman, 191. []
  4. Bitterman, 191. []
  5. See []
  6. See Paul Pitchford, 196-204. []
  7. Sally Fallon Morell, “The Salt of the Earth:  Why Salt is Essential to Health and Happiness,” 31. []
  8. Fallon, 30 []
  9. Fallon, 31. []
  10. Salt sensitivity varies with the individual and seems driven by genetic makeup, age, stress, exercise, and the relationship between sodium and potassium in the foods that a person consumes. []
  11. Adequate levels of calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin B6, and omega-3 oils also appear to be helpful.  For a discussion and bibliography of journal studies, see Joseph Pizzorno, Jr. and Michael T. Murray,Textbook of Natural Medicine, 1762-1767. []
  12. Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, 642. []
  13. Pizzorno and Murray, 1763. []