How is sea salt any different from industrial salt? Isn’t it all the same compound? Why would it matter how fancy it is? Would it really taste they same?


How is sea salt any different from industrial salt? Isn’t it all the same compound? Why would it matter how fancy it is? Would it really taste they same?

In: Chemistry

They don’t taste the same. For me, regular table salt is really metallic.

Sea salt, if it’s legit sea salt, has minerals in it from whatever body of water it came from.

It’s like the difference between beet sugar and a good raw cane sugar. They’re the same crystal, but the basic version is somehow both plain and also sharper tasting. The raw/sea version is rounder, more complex, more interesting.

Sea salt isn’t just sodium chloride. Sodium chloride is a major constituent, but there are other salts present such as Potassium Chloride that gives it a different appearance.

Yes at it’s core all salt is just NaCl crystals. However the difference comes in the impurities. Sea salt has traces of other minerals from the water. Table salt is processed to eliminate those minerals. The taste difference is so extremely subtle, you probably won’t notice the difference unless you taste them side by side.

Before you buy into the expensive salt snobbery, buy several kinds and get a couple people to do a blind taste test. You will be surprised how little difference there is.

So I was once the guy running marketing of consumer salt for a company. Leaving out the fact that nothing is 100% pure, the salt you buy in a round at the grocery store is evaporated using a well to tap salt beds underground, or salt that has dried in evaporating ponds (like those near San Jose). It is purified. In both cases, the salt is just sodium chloride. The claim that the purified salt is still “sea salt” is a bit of a stretch. But Hain makes it, among others.

Then there is sea salt that has not been purified, just collected. That is legal to sell in the US, but not legal to make in the US. Because the production method doesn’t pass regulatory muster. Think of the bird poop. Nobody is approving a food production system that features bird poop. But the impurities are not present in a high enough percentage to deny import permits. Ah bureaucracy. (There are some other items that this also works for, bully sticks for dogs comes to mind. We could never make them the way the Brazilians make them, legally.)

But this is all just marketing hooey. There aren’t enough micro nutrients in sea salt to make a difference. It is mostly good old sodium chloride. You just pay extra money for fancy labels on salt in fancy jars. Some sea salt brands use big crystals of salt, which I think look really cool, particularly in a package that shows them well. But that is just the crystal size some person selected. The salt goes through a series of screens, and there is a market for each size of crystal. You can buy a large bag of whatever crystal size salt you want from a distributor

It’s more like powdered sugar vs granulated vs a jaw breaker vs clear hard candy, vs white hard candy like a cane. They’re all just sugar right?

It’s a mixture of texture, surface area (affects how quickly it dissolves in saliva or on food), aeration, and slight differences in make up, such as anti-caking agents in sugar or in salts case very small amounts of other minerals.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned (that I’ve seen) is that “regular” salt tends to contain anti-caking agents (e. g. silicon dioxide, calcium silicate, or yellow prussiate of soda) in addition to the iodine, whereas sea salt usually doesn’t (e. g. Morton’s). You can probably find regular mined salt that doesn’t and sea salt that does, but as a general rule, sea salt seems more likely to be just salt and nothing else.

That means that it’s okay for cooking (you can shake the container to break up the clumps) but not so much for salt shakers.

Usually recipes involving using salt for preserving (fermenting/pickling) stuff call for pure salt, with no anti-caking agents, but I don’t know exactly why that is.

For sea salt, first take a look of chemicals in sea water.

The main component is sodium chloride, the second is magnesium chloride. It is worth looking at the second component, because it affects the taste and the look of salt. Sodium chloride is the salt we eat, no need to mention. The magnesium chloride also looks like sodium chloride, when left along, it absorbed moisture from the air to form a solution and it has a bitter taste, so salt with magnesium is commonly considered as a low quality salt.

When I was young, senior family members will buy a large bag of wet sea salt which look slightly grey. It has grain size of 1 to 2 mm cubes of sodium chloride. The wetness should be the magnesium. The wet salt used mainly in adding taste to a big pot of soup. For obvious reason, it is not used in fried eggs.

The simplest way of making salt from sea water is to create a shallow field to trap sea water and allow the sun to evaporate the water. What remains is the salt with a bit of bitter magnesium chloride. What people do is to scoop up the salt in a cone shape, let it sit there for week or months. If there is rain water, the rain water will wash down the magnesium chloride to the bottom, since it is more soluble. The cheapest way to separate the two chlorides. The salt at the top of cone is closer in quality to the free running table salt as it has less wetting agent. The bottom of the cone is the grey wet sea salt.

Geochemist here. There are some complications that I will get to at the end but here’s the ELI5:

Salt, in the eating meaning, not the chemistry meaning, is the mineral halite, NaCl, sodium chloride. There are generally 2 common ways to get salt. The first is by evaporating sea water until the salt crystallizes and then scooping up the crystals. This could be done in big open ponds using the heat of the sun or by taking the seawater and running it through industrial evaporators. When you do this you get a lot of the trace elements in seawater along with the salt. If you evaporate it far enough you get other “salts” forming like potassium chloride or magnesium chloride (you might also get some calcium sulphate or gypsum).

The other main kind of salt is rock salt. This is from beds of sodium chloride salts that were formed in ancient seas then buried and compressed into, well, rock. When this happens trapped evaporated seawater is squished out and you usually end up with quite pure salt. This salt can be mined or sometimes pulled out of the ground by pumping water in and dissolving the salt. The salty water is pumped out and then evaporated to for the crystals you get from the store.

The different processes can make the salt taste different and you may or may not think the impurities in the sea salt are a good thing.

The complications are that the exact process to make sea salt is variable and that some rock salt can contain more of other minerals depending on how it formed, like Himalayan pink salt. Also there is a lot of marketing so that people will bend the description of their product to whatever they think will sell best.

This will probably get buried, but most ~~ALL~~ salt is sea salt. It’s just some is older than others.

The salt you’d normally find in use in industries and homes is NaCl, or sodium chloride. This is a neutral salt (neutral salt in terms of acidity or alkalinity) . Of course there are other neutral salts , but they are either not compatible to human body or non usable (salt’s salty taste is regulated by the cation present in the salt’s compound) though some might be used.

Anyways, sea salt contains mixture of acidic , alkaline / basic and neutral salts. Plus it contains mixture of microplastics , pollutants, unwanted chemicals mixed with it. So if you obtain salt by drying the sea water directly, you’d get very crude salt, or mixture of many different salts.
Some salts that are found in the sea water are sodium salts, potassium salts, magnesium salts, calcium salts, and you’d not want to consume them all . (Except sodium chloride )

Some background on salt formation:

Salts are formed when neutralisation reaction occurs , i.e when acid react with base to give salt and water . Since most bases are metal oxides or hydroxides, we can also say that when acid reacts with metal oxides or hydroxides, then they give metallic salt and water.

Also when metals react with acid, they give salt and hydrogen gas.

Ex. Na+ HCl = NaCl +H2 (metal + acid = metallic salt + hydrogen gas)

Ex. NaOH + HCl = NaCl + H2O (metal hydroxide + acid = metallic salt + water)

Thus so on.
Now there are 3 categories of salts, acidic , neutral, basic.

Acidic and basic salts are generally to be consumed in very less quantity or not to be consumed, such as washing soda, which is a basic salt(which cannot be consumed generally) and baking soda is a basic salt which can be consumed in real less quantity.

But neutral salt can be consumed in medium amounts.
You can eat neutral salts like sodium chloride, potassium chloride, calcium chloride, etc.

But they vary in salty range (some may be too salty or sour or not so salty)
But we have selected sodium chloride because it’s perfect for salty taste levels and it is not harmful if consumed in medium /normal salt quantity.

I know this answer is really long for ELI5 and a bit advanced (for 5 yo) but can’t help it 🙁

Chemist here, sea salt may taste different as industrial salt would be refined so it is only sodium chloride, whereas sea salt is literally from the sea so would contain other salts suck as potassium chloride. But it is no better or worse for you that industrial salt, the chemicals are chemicals no matter how or where they are made

No one has mentioned iodized salt yet and I think it’s interesting so I’m gonna talk about it.

Sea salts don’t contain iodine; it is something specifically added to industrialized salt. The reason for that is because our body needs small amounts of iodine but we don’t always get it from our food. If you don’t get enough iodine, you could get a goiter or other medical conditions. When people realized this, their solution was to put iodine into something that everyone eats a little bit of pretty much every day. Sneaky and smart! But sea salt doesn’t have this because it doesn’t occur naturally. So if you only eat sea salt, you might have to take an iodine supplement sometimes.

The end.