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Sea Salt: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Sea Salt | The Paleo Diet

One of the most gratifying rewards of having written The Paleo Diet in 2002 and having been involved in the Paleo movement from its very beginnings is that I receive numerous queries about various nutritional aspects of this lifelong way of eating. Clearly, I nor anyone else, have an inside track to all dietary questions that may arise about contemporary Paleo diets. However, I am happy to share with you the information I have compiled over more than 25 years of my research into this fascinating topic.

As the Paleo Diet gains traction and notoriety worldwide, it seems that part of the original idea has become partially diluted as more and more people discover and write about this lifetime nutritional program. I am flattered by the huge number of Paleo books and cookbooks released to market and available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets. These books and authors are a testament to the worldwide success and effectiveness of The Paleo Diet.

Unfortunaely, as I browse Paleo cookbooks and magazine recipes, I see that many authors have decided to add sea salt to their recipes, presumably in lieu of regular salt. Before I get into the scientific details let me make it clear from the beginning that neither sea salt nor conventional manufactured salt should be considered “Paleo,” as both were rarely or never consumed by our hunter gatherer ancestors, and both maintain nutritional qualities that adversely affect our health when consumed regularly.1

Sea salt contains high concentrations of sodium chloride (NaCl), just like manufactured salt. Sea salt is nothing more than evaporated sea water and can be mined from naturally occurring beds of rock salt or manufactured by solar evaporation of sea water. The salinity (concentration of all dissolved salts) in sea water is usually 35 parts per thousand (35 0/00), but varies somewhat in various oceans.

Salinity of Seawater | The Paleo Diet

The salinity of sea water near the mouth of a large fresh water river, like The Amazon, is lower, but the percentages of all salts in all sea water remains constant.2, 3

Salt Dissolved | The Paleo Diet

Dissolved Salts | The Paleo Diet

You can see from the Table 1 and Figure 2 that sea salt contains high concentrations of salt (NaCl) amounting to 85.62% of all the dissolved salts. Now let’s contrast sea salt to commercially manufactured table salt. Table Salt is refined sea salt, rock salt or lake salt in which almost all impurities are removed leaving pure NaCl. Most table salt is produced using vacuum pan refining and is typically 99.8 to 99.95 pure NaCl.4 Under US law, 2% of salt by weight can include the following additives:

1. Anti-caking agents (typically calcium silicate) are added to table salt.
2. Frequently iodine (a mineral that prevents goiter) is added to table salt in the form of potassium iodide (0.006% to 0.01%).
3. Along with stabilizers (sodium bicarbonate, sodium thiosulfate or dextrose) to prevent degradation of the iodine.

There is absolutely no doubt that the average American consumes excessive amounts of salt which in turn may adversely affect health and well being.1

Total Salt | The Paleo Diet

Sources of Salt | The Paleo Diet

From Table 2 and Figure 3, you can see that far and away, processed foods are the highest contributor (77%) of salt to the American diet. Because processed foods generally are not part of the contemporary Paleo Diet, you will not have to worry about salt – that is unless you add sea salt to your Paleo menu and Paleo recipes. And if you do so, you can see that the salt (NaCl) concentration of sea salt (85.62%) is not much better than manufactured salt (99.8%).

In Table 3, I have presented the top 10 food sources of salt in the U.S. Diet.5 Note that almost all of these high salt foods are not part of The Paleo Diet. If you decide to prepare your Paleo meals or recipes with sea salt, you will be changing a once healthful, low-salt Paleo diet with to high salt diet. The choice is yours, but know that sea salt is not healthier than conventional salt and in fact, may be worse.

Top 10 Salt Sources | The Paleo Diet

On paper, it appears that sea salt is more nutrient dense than table salt and may be nutritionally superior? Unfortunately both salts have undesirably high concentrations of salt (NaCl) as I have pointed out. Animal studies show sea salt to increase hypertension (high blood pressure) compared to table salt.6, 7

Many people including physicians and nutritionists assume that salt’s (NaCl) detrimental health effects occur only from the sodium ion (Na) contained within salt. Yet human experimental studies show the chloride anion is also responsible.8, 9 Chloride (Cl) yields a net acid load to kidney producing a slight metabolic acidosis that promotes high blood pressure, osteoporosis and kidney stones. These diseases along with stomach cancer and stroke are also associated with high salt consumption. Other less well recognized chronic illnesses known to be caused by a high salt diet include: Menierre’s Syndrome (Ear ringing), insomnia, motion sickness, asthma and exercise induced asthma.

Finally, an obscure fact in medical literature is dietary salt loading in even healthy subjects has been shown via MRI to:

  • Increase intracellular Sodium (Na)
  • Reduce intracellular Potassium (K)
  • Increase intracellular Calcium (Ca)
  • Decrease intracellular Magnesium (Mg) and reduce intracellular ph (increases acidity)10

All of these intracellular ionic changes are known to be associated with or promoters of a variety of cancers.11-13

Salt is definitely not Paleo, and neither is sea salt.


Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus


Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus

The Paleo Diet | Dr. Loren CordainDr. Loren Cordain is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. His research emphasis over the past 20 years has focused upon the evolutionary and anthropological basis for diet, health and well being in modern humans. Dr. Cordain’s scientific publications have examined the nutritional characteristics of worldwide hunter-gatherer diets as well as the nutrient composition of wild plant and animal foods consumed by foraging humans. He is the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets and has lectured extensively on the Paleolithic nutrition worldwide. Dr. Cordain is the author of six popular bestselling books including The Real Paleo Diet Cookbook, The Paleo Diet, The Paleo Answer, and The Paleo Diet Cookbook, summarizing his research findings.

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1. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O’Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Feb;81(2):341-54
2. Castro P, Huber M. Marine Biology, McGraw-Hill, 9th Ed., New York, NY, 2012.
3. Baseggio G. 1974. The composition of seawater and its concentrates. Proc. 4th Int. Symp. Salt Vol. 2, pp. 351-358. Northern Ohio Geological Society, Inc., Cleveland, OH.
4. Kurlansky M. Salt, A World History. Penguin Books, NY, NY, 2002.
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vital signs: food categories contributing the most to sodium consumption – United States, 2007 – 2008, February 7, 2012.
6. Dahl LK, Heine M. The enhanced hypertensogenic effect of sea salt over sodium chloride. Am J Cardiol. 1961 Nov;8:726-31
7. Dahl LK, Heine M. Effects of chronic excess salt feeding. Enhanced hypertensogenic effect of sea salt over sodium chloride. J Exp Med. 1961;113:1067-76
8. Kurtz I et al. Effect of diet on plasma acid-base composition in normal humans. Kidney Int 1983;24:670-80
9. Boegehold MA, Kotchen TA. Importance of dietary chloride for salt sensitivity of blood pressure. Hypertension. 1991 Jan;17(1 Suppl):I158-61.
10. Resnick et al. Intracellular ionic consequences of dietary salt loading in essential hypertension. J Clin Invest 1994;94:1269-76
11. Jansson B. Geographic cancer risk and intracellular potassium/sodium ratios. Cancer Detection and Prevention 1986; 9:171-94
12. Lee AH, Tannock IF. Heterogeneity of intracellular pH and of mechanisms that regulate intracellular pH in populations of cultured cells. Cancer Res. 1998 May 1;58(9):1901-8.
13. Mijatovic T et al. Cardiotonic steroids on the road to anti-cancer therapy. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2007 Sep;1776(1):32-57.


17 Comments on "Sea Salt: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea"

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  1. jigs-n-fixtures says:

    The biggest problem I see with “sea salt” is that it is made from water that has been exposed to our industrial pollutants, and nuclear testing fallout. All those trace contaminants are present in the salt. Admittedly they are at low levels. But they are there, and they most certainly aren’t “paleo”.

  2. Sammi says:

    The human body needs all its vitamins and minerals to live and function well and that includes salt. Everyone is different and will require something else, to set up a diet and tell people that they don’t “need” something is IMO reckless! I have a medical condition that requires an abundance of salt, twice the normal recommended amount. I don’t have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and I’m not obese; I just need salt when my body lets me know I need it.

    The bodies job is to tell you what it needs when it needs it. If you ignore it or give it the wrong thing you run the risk of making yourself sick. I don’t eat meat or nuts cause my body can’t process the protein due to medical issues. I eat other things and that does include quinoa, some people say that’s not Paleo but my body loves it so I could careless. It’s an ancient grain so whose to say “cavemen” weren’t eating it somewhere. No one can say anything with any real degree of certainty as its really all best guess. None of us were alive back then and pulling up fossils here and there doesn’t mean anything, there’s bound to be more meat eaters then vegetarians just like today. All science really comes down to is best guess, you can hypothesize and deduce but short of going back in time we’ll never know for sure.

    I say add the salt if your body needs it and do what feels right for you and your body. We don’t all hail from the same land so who knows what the Paleolithic people were eating in your neck of the woods vs mine.

    • Nicholas says:

      If you are medically challenged and need more sodium in your diet, that is one thing. To claim that a body needs salt (NaCl) regardless of this situation to function is pure fantasy.

      The body needs mineral salts, they are essential. Salt has never been essential.

    • Serge says:

      I don’t know of a single medical condition that requires sodium chloride to remedy the medical issue. So I would be grateful to be able to know and understand what that condition is.

  3. Aimy says:

    What about himalayan salt?

    • Nicholas says:

      It is less toxic than industrialised and heavily processed sodium chloride, but none the less is still approximately 85% inorganic sodium chloride (NaCl).

  4. Sue says:

    I am fairly new to the Paleo thing, but surely some of our ancestors had access to salt. I come from an English background. Surely fish and other sea creatures would have been a staple of their diet.

    • Nicholas says:

      Fish and other creatures may well have supplied, organic salts of sodium, also organic salts of chloride. They would not, in antiquity, have provided salt.

  5. Willemieke Bakker says:

    Did you look into keltisch seasalt? I’ve read that its full of minerals and has the same balance between minerals and elements as our blood

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