30

Sea salt has been getting much more popular lately due to a perception that it tastes better than regular salt. Since it has negligible amounts of iodine, and tends to replace iodized salt in our diet, I understand that some iodine-deficiency-related diseases are on the rise in the U.S. Other than that, Wikipedia tells me that the health consequences of ingesting sea salt or regular salt are the same.

So is there really a difference in the way they taste? Have any scientific taste-tests been done to see if people could tell the difference in flavor when sea salt is used in or on their food?

  • 22
    15 years ago my wife was buying only sea salt (compounded by the fact that I didn't eat out / eat junk food, so what I ate at home was all I ate), and I developed a goitre. Goitres are something of a 3rd-world disease; and the (1st world) doctor I went to see about it didn't recognise it for what it was: and told me that I would (and I quote) "need expensive thyroid medicine for the rest of my life". I'd read Where there is no doctor and did recognise it: I went back to buying iodized table salt and the problem went away. – ChrisW May 27 '11 at 1:40
  • 1
    I can perceive a subtle difference in taste with sea salts that have other minerals present. Regular, white sea salt is not discernable to me. I do notice a difference between flake/kosher salt vs. standard table salt. – duffbeer703 May 27 '11 at 1:48
  • 9
    @duffbeer703: Because of the ability for the mind to fool itself with placebo-style effects, and also lucky guesses, it is better if subtle differences are tested (a) blind, and (b) repeatedly. Otherwise this becomes an anecdote, and is generally frowned upon as unreliable at Skeptics.SE. – Oddthinking May 27 '11 at 2:07
  • This makes me wonder: Is there any particular reason that sea salt can't be iodized also? – Kyralessa May 27 '11 at 3:11
  • @Kyralessa I buy iodized sea salt. Morton's even makes one. IMO it takes less to get a stronger flavor. – hudsonsedge May 27 '11 at 3:20
35

Cooks Illustrated did a non-peer-reviewed blind taste test back in 2002 (available here, but it's behind a paywall). They compared nine different salts, including iodized table salt, non-iodized table salt, non-iodized kosher salt (of different brands and coarsenesses), and a bunch of different sea salts. They performed five different tests:

Tests were divided into three categories: salt used at the table (we sprinkled each sample on roast beef), salt used in baking (we used a plain biscuit recipe), and salt dissolved in liquids (we tested each salt in spring water, chicken stock, and pasta cooking water).

The tests did uncover "profound differences" in the types of salt used, especially in the beef tenderloin test, with large flaked sea salt winning by a large margin. Texture seemed to be important, as table salt (both iodized and non-iodized) won in the baking category due to their small crystals that evenly distribute in batter. None of the tasters could detect the difference between any of the salts when dissolved in liquids.

  • 6
    and the latter state, dissolved, is how salt is most likely to end up in your food. Ergo, no difference in taste between salts in the majority of dishes, no need to buy expensive variants unless you have a specific need for their different grain size and shape for a specific dish you're cooking. – jwenting May 1 '13 at 7:02
  • 3
    @jwenting: Exactly. It seems fairly obvious that you can taste/feel different grain/flake sizes, because they feel different on the tongue and dissolve at different speeds. The interesting question is whether there is a difference once they have dissolved - and the answer seems to be "no". – sleske Sep 6 at 11:32
14

There was an article in The Times from May 8, 2009: Designer salt? Take that with a pinch of you-know-what (original, now dead link - archived copy ). It isn't from a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but describes two blinded taste-tests of different salts, where the author is surprised to find that the difference is detectable.

We tried Sainsbury’s own-brand table salt versus the common French sea salt, La Baleine. We tasted them blind. They were both fine-ground. I expected a dead heat.

But the difference in taste was amazing.

  • 4
    At least that's a blind taste test. But it doesn't mention whether they were testing them in food: I get the sense they were simply putting the salt on their tongues, which isn't how I typically serve up salt. – StriplingWarrior May 27 '11 at 2:10
  • 3
    In the "second" test, they were adding it to soup, but they could see the salt going in, so they could recognise it by appearance. (I mean second comparison of different salts. Another test included in there is preferred level of saltiness.) – Oddthinking May 27 '11 at 2:43
  • 2
    There's an argument that appearance - or even branding - can influence your taste experience. The question then becomes: am I trying to test what salt has the better taste or the better experience? Blind tests only work for the former; the latter may be more typically how salt is served. – Oddthinking May 27 '11 at 2:44
  • 2
    @Dan, I assume they were finely-ground to avoid having different textures and relative surface areas. That would appear to address the types of concerns that your reference would raise, so I am not sure what your reasoning is. (It might not hide colour differences though., and I believe in the second test, they were NOT ground up.) As an aside: Salt crystal size IS relevant to cooking, when the salt is not dissolved: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17995602 – Oddthinking May 27 '11 at 6:55
  • 9
    Around about this point, I would suggest: "Hey, this is a cheap and simple experiment to repeat yourself." – Oddthinking May 27 '11 at 6:57
5

In recipes, "table salt", "sea salt", and "koshering salt" often refer to different sized and shaped crystals. There is no question that when sprinkled on food they have different tastes, but that is due to the size and texture. Once dissolved there is no detectable difference.

It is possible to buy iodized fine-ground sea salt that is certified kosher. These terms are used literally on the packaging, as opposed to the way the terms are used by chefs.

In Do I Need to Use Kosher Salt? | Ask The Food Lab, J. Kenji López-Alt, the Chief culinary consultant of Serious Eats says:

While the differences in color are largely cosmetic, shape can have an effect on a salt's eating qualities. Chefs like using sea salts because they provide crunchy texture and a burst of salinity that adds interest to plated foods. They should be used exclusively for finishing dishes. Scattering on the tops of glazed loaves of bread before baking. Sprinkling over sliced perfectly cooked steak just before serving. Adding a touch of crunch to slivers of raw scallops. You get the picture. Fancy-pants food.

If you're using your fancy sea salt to cook with, on the other hand, you may as well replace your toilet paper with dollar bills, because you are flushing all of its good features down the toilet.

But really, all salt is sea salt. The only difference is whether it is extracted directly from sea water or mined from an ancient dried-up sea.

There might be very minor difference in mineral content, but not enough that anyone can taste the difference.

Where people might be able to taste a difference is when other chemicals are deliberately added to the salt when it is processed. In particular, iodine and anti-clumping agents are added in far greater proportions than any naturally occurring mineral.

A 1995 publication, Effect of Iodized Salt on the Colour and Taste of Food, reports the results of a study commissioned by Unicef. This is its conclusion:

6. General conclusion

Studies on the influence of iodized salt on food quality have examined a variety of foods such as meat and dairy products, cheese, canned vegetables (tomato juice, green beans, sauerkraut, whole kernel sweet maize), bulk sauerkraut, white bread, baby foods, soup, pickled olives and potato chips. In none of the studies were adverse effects of iodine reported. There is one study which indicated that off-flavours may occur when iodized salt is used in conjunction with lemon flavouring but this is a minor problem which could be overcome by the highly advanced food industry which would bring such products on to the market. Another study in which iodine/ iodide mixtures were added at more than 100 times that normally used also showed that flavour could be affected. However such high iodine concentrations are unlikely to be achieved in practice. More importantly, there are undocumented reports that iodized salt produces changes in the colour and possibly texture of pickled vegetables. Because of the absence of data, further studies in this area are warranted.

There was a very slight correlation between iodine and taste, but not until concentrations that were at least 100 times what is added to table salt.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .