Salt is a mineral. Chemically, it is known as sodium chloride (NaCl), the combination of one sodium ion and one chloride ion. Salt is 40% sodium and 60% chloride by weight.
Salt is primarily found underground in rock form or dissolved in the world’s oceans and some lakes. Interestingly, salt is the only rock eaten by humans.
Salt enhances the flavor of food, preserves food, helps to regulate and control normal body functions, and acts as a building block for more complex chemicals. Salt (and sodium in particular) is needed by the body for the proper functioning of nerve transmissions and muscle contractions. It also helps us to retain water and prevent dehydration. Your body needs only a couple hundred milligrams (mg) of sodium a day to stay healthy, but most people get far too much — mostly from sodium in processed and fast foods.
As an ingredient in dishes, salt plays two important roles. First, it reduces bitterness. Second, because it reduces bitterness, adding salt allows the aromas and tastes of the other ingredients in your dish to shine through. The goal is not to make your food taste salty, but to enhance the flavor of all the ingredients. The term “salting to taste” means exactly that; add salt in the amount that allows the flavor of the dish be all that you want it to be.
Sea salt and table salt have the same basic nutritional value — both mostly consist of two minerals — sodium and chloride. However, sea salt is often marketed as a more natural and healthy alternative. The real differences between sea salt and table salt are in their taste, texture and processing, not their chemical makeup.
Sea salt is produced through evaporation of seawater, usually with little processing, which leaves behind some trace minerals and elements depending on its water source. These insignificant amounts of minerals add flavor and color to sea salt, which also comes in a variety of coarseness levels.
Table salt is mined from underground salt deposits. Table salt is more heavily processed to eliminate trace minerals and usually contains an additive to prevent clumping. Most table salt also has added iodine, an essential nutrient that appears naturally in minute amounts in sea salt.
By weight, sea salt and table salt contain about the same amount of sodium chloride.
Too much salt, however, can cause high blood pressure and damage to blood vessels, so moderation is important. You will most likely stay within the normal ranges for daily sodium consumption if you use salt for cooking, don’t add more salt at the table, and avoid processed and fast foods.