09/19/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Salt of the Earth... Or the Sea

Chocolate, coffee, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cheese, salt and so many other foods in the United States have gone designer. It makes my mouth water just thinking about them. The packaged, bland, over-processed foods that dominated our choices for so long are now being challenged by prettier, tastier, healthier, and, yes, more expensive options. As an aficionado of the specialty food movement, my goal is to break down those options and explain the benefit to our health and our table that makes the price a worthwhile investment in pleasure and living well. In this issue I'll focus on salt.

Until recent years, our old friend Morton graced most of our tables. Now even our neighborhood grocer has a plethora of salts, from kosher to rock to sea, pushing the lowly table salt to the bottom shelf; Siberia in grocery store shelf positioning. Buyer-beware and read on to equip yourself to be a discriminating salt shopper.

The literature on the topic of table vs. sea salt is interesting. There are many who begin their argument against buying into the designer salt craze with the fact that table salt and sea salt have identical chemical components. They might concede that sea salt has a few more trace minerals that are, okay, good for us. Then, they jump in with the fact that table salt has iodine added to it, a very important nutritional supplement critical to the function of our thyroid. While all agree that sea salt tastes better and has a better texture, some argue that once it dissolves into your food, it's all the same, making the cost of sea salt unjustifiable.

I'm on the side of the debate that emphasizes taste, texture and natural minerals. Due to a childhood kidney ailment, I did not apply any salt for almost 25 years until one day a friend brought an elegant little container of Fleur de Sel from her trip to France. I thought, heck, I'll give it a try even though I don't like salt; after all, it's French -- it must be something special. It was the culinary equivalent of a black-and-white movie being converted to color. I was truly amazed at the richer flavor of food. I tried using table salt to see if it had the same effect; there was no comparison. Table salt has an unpleasant bitter metallic taste to me.

Sea salt comes in a wide variety of natural flavors derived from the area of the world from which it is harvested. I like that sea salt is harvested, while table salt is processed. Doesn't that tell us something?

Sea salt is made from evaporated sea water. The only thing ever added to sea salt might be flavoring, like rosemary or lemon. Sometimes sea salt is cold-smoked, like the luscious and rich Halen Mon from Wales. Table salt, on the other hand, has a number of additives. Are you ready for this?

In addition to iodine, added in 1924 to prevent goiter, table salt is also enhanced with Yellow Prussiate Na4Fe to prevent clumping. This chemical contains cyanide. Those proponents of the use of table salt were quick to argue that there is so little of this ingredient that it couldn't hurt us. Hum. Table salt also contains dextrose, a simple sugar like glucose, used to stabilize the iodine. The ingredient label on sea salt reads 'salt.' It comes from evaporated sea water; that's it.

All salt provides useful and important health benefits. For too long we were warned against eating any salt. It's like the no-fat craze. In addition to being an austere and flavorless way to live, our bodies need some fat, just as it does salt. Salt helps in the preservation of melatonin and serontin, hormones very useful in fighting the physical effects of stress. It is a sleep aid (take with a glass of warm water at night); it relieves fluid retention; helps with food absorption and, contrary to long-ago disputed reports, it helps to regulate blood pressure. Both table salt and sea salt will provide these health benefits; however, table salt is only able to delivery these benefits along with not-so-healthy or appetizing additives. So, asking about the health benefits of sea salt vs table salt is, in my opinion, the wrong question. The right question is, which of the two delivers these benefits in the most natural way with as little processing as possible. The answer is clear, sea salt.

Even if the scorecard were balanced in terms of nutrition and means of production, I would still opt to pony up for a luscious, light peach-colored Murray Darling with its subtle, sweet taste, or the incomparable, hand-raked, very expensive, but worth every penny, Fleur de Sel de Guerande that tastes like you just licked your lips after a frolic in the chilly waters of Brittany, France.

Sea salt enhances the flavor of all foods, even chocolate. It has an amazing way of making foods taste more like themselves. Broccoli is more broccoli-like; salad greens are brighter; chocolate is richer; ice cream is creamier. Using a wonderful flake salt like the Lemon Flake from The Meadow, our sole supplier of salts, adds a delightful little crunch along with the subtle sea-like flavor. Sea salt is kosher by nature.

There is some joke of the gods when it comes to foods that are good for us. In small quantities they provide useful, if not miraculous, health benefits. But, large quantities are code red for our bodies. This is true of olive oil, chocolate, coffee, bread and salt. The general guideline is around 2000mg per day. With 500mg per 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt, this gives you about four teaspoons per day, more than enough when using a good quality salt because those same gods know that very little of a good thing goes a long way.

Save your sea salt for finishing. I do like to coat the outside of meats and fish just before searing, otherwise, I salt just before eating.

So, to the naysayers, I say thank you very much, but I'll take my iodine in the form of fresh fish and shellfish or I'll shop for iodine at the farmers market in garlic, lima beans, swiss chard, summer squash, turnip greens and spinach. And, I'll gladly ingest those trace minerals from the sea, hold the cyanide please. It is worth paying a bit more, and use a bit less, of something that aids my health and tastes so good.

Eat well.

Cary is the owner of Ah love Oil & Vinegar, food specialty stores in Arlington and Fairfax, VA, committed to promoting artisan-crafted foods with few steps between the earth and your mouth. She seeks food-crafters who make one thing with integrity and quality. Ah love Oil & Vinegar is a museum to these crafters' work to which you are invited to come and taste. Cary loves meeting the producers and hearing about the passion they have for their work. She is proud to be part of the growing specialty food movement.