04 December, 2011


Last week, I discovered that there are at least seven or eight different types of salt in my kitchen!

I always knew we used more than one sort - not very unusual in a typical (Indian) household, - but when I decided to picture them for this post, the whole list revealed itself.

Some of them, (further described in Salt - 2.) as seen above, are, clockwise from left:

1. Sendhu Namak 1 (fine powder, used during fasts)
2. Iodised Table Salt
3. Black Salt (Kala Namak or Sanchal)
4. Sendha Namak 2 (from a sprinkle jar, slightly more grainy than the first one)
5. Rock salt powdered (a local organic brand)
6. Rock salt (unpowdered)

Besides these, a couple of others are recent entrants, gourmet ones, a herb-flavoured sea salt from France and a coarse one from Italy.  For some reason - (the price, perhaps!) - I've never really counted these as 'salts' - indeed, they can hardly be called 'common' in these parts! More like a treat for special dishes on occasions. In fact, there are some salts exotic enough to warrant a chocolate or confectionery variety all of their own!  But I digress. (If you really want to know more go here.)

So then, what's the big deal about the common salt?

Quite a bit it would seem.

It appears that the general population is divided into two groups -
  1. Those who care about what kind of salt it is, and 
  2. Those who don't. (Salt is salt.)
Having recently switched over from the second category to the first, I've managed to figure out that there are two broad categories of salt that can be used in food.

In a non-technical manner of speaking, I will simply refer to them as -
  1. The "Chemical" salt,  Vs.
  2. The "Natural" salt.
The first one, known as Table Salt, is the most common kind of salt found in the average kitchen. It usually comes from salt mines, from underground salt deposits, or harvested from seawater.  Once mined or harvested, it is refined and most minerals are removed until it is pure sodium chloride. This process has the unintended side-effect of adding a more bland and bitter flavor to the salt than its unprocessed counterparts. Most table salt is also usually iodized, where it is artificially spray coated with iodine (the flavorless additive usually being potassium iodide) to prevent thyroid diseases like goiter (an enlargement of the thyroid gland). Other common additives are usually anti-caking agents (like calcium silicate) and stabilizers (like dextrose).  The end result are those beautiful, pristine-looking, free-flowing, sparkling, perfect, white crystals of salt which we "add to taste" with hardly a second thought about where it came from or what went into it (or out of it).  Why should that matter?  We'll come to that in a minute.
Let's quickly look at the pros and cons of this type of salt:

Benefits -
  1. Omnipresent and easy to procure.
  2. Added iodine is an important mineral for the body.
  3. Cheap. (At least, relatively speaking.  It is sadly ironical that the poorest of the poor, who are most in need of the added iodine, usually can't afford it.)
Drawbacks -
  1. Somewhat bitter and metallic taste.
  2. Iodine can adversely react with certain foods and affect the taste. For example, iodine darkens pickles and inhibits the bacterial fermentation needed to make dishes like sauerkraut, or idlis.
  3. The anti-caking agent doesn't dissolve in water, and can cloud solutions used in pickling, canning etc. (Here, it's only the appearance that is affected. Equally true when present as an additive in non-iodized salt.)
  4. The major benefit of using iodized table salt is a questionable one, given that a significant amount of the added iodine is actually lost during storage, and cooking (especially by Indian cooking methods).
  5. Perhaps the most important one of all: Because of it's "unnatural" refined composition, it apparently leaches precious mineral ions away from the body and is actually unhealthy. A bit like "hungry water" (the distilled sort) supposedly does.  But that's another post. Meanwhile, go Google.  It seems that it is this type of salt that is also responsible for high blood pressure, fluid retention and all those things that "salt" usually gets blamed for.

The second sort, usually Sea Salt or Rock Salt (and here I am referring to the ones which don't get refined and stripped of the other trace minerals), is made by dehydrating sea water in the sun or obtained from deposits in the earth (like the very premium and very gourmet Fleur de Sel, and the Himalayan Pink Salt).  It is different in that it contains many varieties of "salts", (all of which are essentially water-soluble ionic compounds) the main one being, of course, Sodium Chloride. The traces could be of Magnesium Chloride, Sodium Iodide, Aluminum Sulphate, etc. It is these very "impurities" that set it apart and make it special. They add flavor, which can differ based on the source of the sea salt (or rock deposit). According to some, the mineral content of such naturally occurring salts might even mimic, to some degree, the variety of salts in the human body.  Good quality salts are also often processed by hand, and by using specialized tools (like wooden implements) in their processing.

It has none of the drawbacks of the other kind listed above.

True, it is not so commonly available, and there is the need to address iodine deficiency.  However, seafood and many dark greens, as well as sea salt, contain iodine naturally, and the supplement is unnecessary if there are sufficient quantities of either in one's diet.

Also true, that many gourmet salts come with a hefty price tag, but there are several available common versions in India (Sendha namak used during fasting, Sanchal or Kala Namak etc.), with many organic companies including rock salt in their product line, though they cost more than the "manufactured" table salt they're certainly an option.

Besides, this type of salt may actually be beneficial for health.  It is claimed that unrefined salt not only has the added advantage of supplying the body with essential trace minerals, but that it can be used freely as it  also does not adversely affect health the way table salt is accused of doing (high blood pressure, fluid retention etc.)

Specialists don't necessarily agree.  But perhaps that ought to be taken with a "pinch of salt",  or perhaps another type of 'civil' disobedience is called for, more than seven decades after Mahatma Gandhi marched to Dandi.  It might be time to listen to our inner voices, or maybe our grandmothers.  After all, according to this site - that has a very interesting list of salt uses and tips, - she probably was familiar with many of the more than 14,000 ways in which salt can be used! For the truly interested, there's even a book by Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History.

So, when you pick up that shaker, which salt would you prefer it to contain?


  1. This was an eye opener for me! I knew sendha namak is more nutritious, but did not know of the ill effects of taking common salt. Thanks for sharing. I am sharing this post on my Facebook page.

    1. Thank you Vandana Mathur. It's barely negligible, given the quantity we are supposed to actually consume. But they all add up after a point and take us away from what is natural.



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