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The many types of salt - a guide

Salt is salt. Or is it?

Many different types of salt can be found on average supermarket shelf these days, even more at up-scale supermarkets and gourmet stores.

If the product range is wide, the price range is crazy. A packet / bottle of salt can cost anything from under $1 for ordinary salt, to tens of dollars for gourmet salts, to more than $100 for Korean bamboo salt sold through multi-level marketing.

There is no need to pay big money for relatively healthy natural sea salt or natural rock salt. Higher price does not always reflect better quality.

A friend of mine recently paid quite a few dollars for a packet of PansaltĀ®, thinking it to be healthy. He got a scolding from his wife, haha!

To avoid scoldings from spouses and to avoid burning unncessary holes in your pocket, here is a guide to the many different types of salt.

Types of salt - refined

The main difference you need to know about the many types of salt is this - some are refined and contain only sodium chloride, plus maybe some chemical additives like anti-caking agents. What you want is natural, unrefined salt.

Click here to understand the diffrerences between refined and unrefined types of salt.

How do you tell the difference when you are buying? Firstly, if it is really cheap, like a few cents or a dollar for a packet, it is most probably refined. But this depends on where the salt is produced. In some countries, unrefined natural salt can be obtained quite cheaply.

Another tell-tale sign is when the salt is super white, super fine and flows super smoothly from the salt shaker. This suggests that the salt is not only refined, but also contains chemical additives like anti-caking agents. These are the types of salt you should avoid, no matter how cheap or expensive they are, because they are harmful to health.

Look also at the words on the label:

Tasting different types of salt

The best way to tell the difference between refined vs unrefined salt is through the taste test. Place a small amount of salt on the tip of your tongue. Refined salt with have a very salty taste and a strong "biting" effect that will make you cringe. Unrefined, natural salt will have a milder taste, without the "biting" effect.

Types of salt - natural, unrefined

Among the many natural types of salt, there are actually some differences in the extent of refining.

Lake salt

Lake salt comes from inland salt-water lakes, or saline lakes. These are formed when water flowing into the lake cannot leave and when the water evaporates, it becomes salty. There are not many salt-water lakes in the world but some of them, like the Dead Sea, are even more salty than sea water.

The composition of sea water is almost constant throughout the world although there are some variations in the composition of natural sea salt, depending on where the salt is harvested and how it is processed.

In the case of saline lakes, however, there is an even greater variation depending on the locality. For example, the salt harvested from Lake Baskunchak in Russia is about 99.8 percent sodium chloride - almost as pure as refined salt, versus about 95 percent sodium chloride in natural sea salt.

Still, it might be better than refined salt if it is natural lake salt, unprocessed and without chemical additives. About 80 percent of Russia's salt production comes from Lake Baskunchak and would be considered ordinary salt by the Russians. Nothing special.

Other types of salt from inland saline lakes, however, are often marketed as special lake salts, with a premium price tag. I have read, for example, (Australian) chefs rave about the distinctive flavour of certain types of Australian lake salt. But because of the high price, I have not tried and cannot comment on them.

Rock salt / Himalayan pink salt

Rock salt, also known as halite, are salt deposits found in the ground, similar to, eg, coal or oil deposits. These rock deppsits were formed by seas and salt-water lakes that dried up hundreds of millions of years ago. Because the salt is so, so old, it is extremely pure, as there was no pollution in the world back then!

Most rock salt is processed into refined salt. When you buy regular refined salt, you usually would not be told which types of salt - sea salt or rock salt - the original source was. Because of growing interest in natural sea salt and other natural types of salt, however, rock salt is increasingly sold as it is - just crushed into smaller grains - without refining or processing.

In a way, this makes rock salt even more "pure" than natural sea salt, which still needs to be processed from sea water. At the same time, however, rock salt usually contains other "impurities" in the form of minerals that are either not present in natural sea salt, or present only in much smaller amounts.

These other minerals or "impurities" give rock salt distinctive colours and flavours. Various types of salt harvested from rock deposits may be light blue, dark blue, purple, yellow, orange, pink, red, grey or even black in colour.

Most of these are sold as exotic gourmet salt at equally "exotic" prices, like over $10 for a small bottole containing just 100 or 200 grams of salt. There is, however, one that is cheap and good. Click here to learn more about Himalayan pink salt, which is the salt I currently use for cooking.

One advantage of rock salt over sea salt is that rock salt is naturally dry and does not absorb moisture as easily, so there is no need to add anti-caking chemicals to prevent it from clumping together.

Salt substitutes

Another group of products, like PansaltĀ® and other high potassium salts, I would call them salt substitutes rather than classify them as among the different types of salt. These products can help reduce high blood pressure. But their chemical composition is so drastically different from that of regular salt that I would not consider them to be "salt". Read here to learn more about types of salt substitutes.

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Himalayan pink salt
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