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



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.

About Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor Emeritus

Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor EmeritusDr. 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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“21” Comments

  1. Menierre’s is NOT ear ringing. It is a nasty problem with the inner ear that manifests as wild vestibular disturbances where the sufferer feels like they are tumbling and falling. I worked with several veterans at the SLC VAMC who had this problem.

  2. One thing intrigues me quite a great deal. When a doctor asks a hypertensive patient to reduce or cut down on salt and follow an AHA diet recommendation, it seems that he/she assumes that salt raises BP. If salt raises BP, why is it that a hypertensive patient reduces or cuts down on salt and follow the AHA recommendation, and yet his/her BP does not go down, unless he/she keeps taking anti-hypertensive drugs? Would that be that neither the salt raises BP, nor the AHA diet recommendation is safe and lowers BP? Why then would the president of the AHA suffers heart attack? ( Thanks in advance for your honest and well informed reply.

  3. Pingback: The Detailed Guide to Dietary Salt | wealthhehq

  4. I would suggest this as a well-argued, comprehensive, counter-point:

    Salt, not a food? Sure; it is indeed a rock. But, all minerals are rocks, and salt is the single mineral that animals in nature seek out to consume directly (salt licks). I think to call it a non-food is to engage in polemics rather than reasoned debate, since that statements and its conclusions are clearly intended to be more provocative than thought-provoking.

    Certainly, there is no evidence that paleo humans sought out and consumed large amounts of salt, so I can understand not calling it paleo for that reason. I respect that position. But I have to strongly disagree with the statement:

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

    Surely, more than a single citation is required to truly substantiate such a cut and dry claim. All we know for sure is how much salt (and/or sodium) americans are eating now, and we have some reasonable estimates for what was traditionally consumed in the diets of prehistoric humans.

    But isn’t that the whole basis of the Paleo diet? Yes, and it too is unsubstantiated scientifically. But, I would further argue that it would be difficult or impossible to substantiate it in principle because reductionism is incapable of appreciating the nearly infinite interdependencies and reciprocal relationships involved. Because of that, and because the overarching Paleo paradigm is one that seems so fundamentally valid, I am willing to make the logical jump from association to causation, more as a bet and a belief than as a fact. Paleo makes sense, in its fundamental concepts and foundations and I believe the totality of that paradigm should be beneficial.

    I cannot extend the same kind of leniency to specific claims, such as the health claims and disease relationships being made here about salt. For one thing, the whole issue is confounded from the get go: are we talking about the health effects salt in its natural form (sea salt), or of salt in its pure form (NaCl), or are we talking about sodium in general? One thing that is clear from the science is that sodium’s role and effects in the body are tightly connected to available levels of potassium, calcium, and many other minerals. Simply by not distinguishing between added sodium (processed food) and added salt (in recipes, at the table, to taste) could have large implications for the validity of the data. While some mention is made here of other minerals, the fundamental supposition that dietary sodium intake CAUSES health issues is accepted as fact out of hand. This may be part of the contemporary nutritional gospel, but that doesn’t make it true.

    The evidence itself linking salt/sodium (to my knowledge, even the best studies have failed to very tightly control for and examine the distinctions between the two) is shaky and inconsistent at best, and the “totality of the evidence” as so many like to resort to, is really just a way to ignore the studies that have seemed to refute the hypothesized causal links or reconcile them with the established view. But the established view itself was already established long before there was real data to support it:

    So, I would argue that associations between salt intake and health issues are not enough to condemn salt specifically.

    In any case, many of the other points made by article are valid and helpful: sea salt shouldn’t be automatically assumed to be healthy, for example. Outside of trying to specifically attribute specific disease causes to sodium in general, or NaCl in particular, I think the demonstrated cellular effects are interesting and worth consideration, as they support the view that adding high salt/sodium could upset or change the milieu intérieur and that could have a whole host of undesirable effects and consequences. Let’s just not confuse that with anything close to a known, substantiated, direct causal effect.

    Personally, I think that Paleo, as a personal choice, can include a spectrum, or many degrees of interpretations and adherences, and choosing whether or not to include salt is something I would include as a discretionary item, along with dairy. Salt may very well not be, strictly speaking, part of “the” Paleo diet, but I think a paleo adherent could make a reasoned case for salting their food to taste. The basic idea of paleo will continue to evolve and branch as people choose to take their own views, sometimes making it more restrictive (raw paleo) or less (primal), but I would suggest that these debates are intra-community debates that have less significance than extra-community debates (those we all continue to have with the heart-healthy whole grains, low fat crowds). But thanks for weighing in on this one and including some useful information so that folks can make more informed choices.

  5. Pingback: Sea Salt In Paleo Diet | My Good Health lost

  6. Salt is not a food. I have a radical idea. Do not eat non-food unless you want to end up like Micheal Jackson, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston or Brittany Murphy. Iron nails and rust are great sources of iron but they are not foods. Chalk is a great source of calcium but is not a food. Some people and all wild animals never eat salt. None of them have high blood pressure. That is causation. So they gave chimpanzees and rats salt and they got high blood pressure. The more salt they gave them, the higher the blood pressure. That is causation. Salt has no calories but makes you heavier due to water retention. So why do they put it in food? Studies show it is as addictive as heroin. Their goal is to make money. Some people do not believe in God but all Americans believe in money.

  7. In my research on salt, I have realized that the term sea salt is a little ridiculous because nearly all salt is sea salt. What you need to be aware of is that salt that is pure white is refined. Before I started eating paleo I noticed a marked difference in the swelling in my ankles just by switching to “sea salt”. I later learned the only difference between the sea salt I had purchased and table salt is that it had no anti-caking agents in it. I saw even more improvement when I started using unrefined salt. I now use a small amount of either pink himalayan sea salt or Redmonds real salt in some of my cooking. I figure my salt had been drastically reduced since I started paleo. I would think that salt consumption depended on where people lived. If they were near the ocean and ate lots of fish then they would eat more salt naturally.

  8. This one really confuses me about the diet. Surely people from all times have had salt. You can easily get it from the sea, where they’re getting all the fish. I was also under the impression that the studies on salt and blood pressure weren’t done properly.

  9. When you eat the paleo way, you give up a lot of salt when you get rid of the processed crap. For me, i find I use less salt or none at all on my food because it tastes too salty because my tastes buds have changed. So if you are going paleo I am not sure why you need to know if sea salt is better then regular salt, because you may not even want salt.And if you are not eating the paleo way and have not given up processed crap, then it REALLY dose’t matter which kind of salt you use.

  10. So our ancestors wouldn’t have had access to salt…. except salt beds from dried lakes and other bodies of water have existed on earth since before there were humans.

    The earliest salt trade involved cutting blocks of salt out of dried lake beds in Africa and transporting them… Obviously our ancestors had access to salt in the Paleo world if it can literally be found sitting on the ground in Africa.

    • Dear Brent, I must say that I love that one. Not to say that in Africa (from where all humans sprang) people were in touch with the sea from very early, for at least 3 million years. Did we not originate from the sea? It is a fact that much salt ingestion may cause the blood pressure to rise. I believe that if you put one tablespoon of salt in one tablespoon of water the salt will look highly concentrated. But if you put one tablespoon of salt in one glass of water, the salt concentration will look less. Yet, if you put one tablespoon of salt in 3 litres of water, it should taste not salty at all, and it even looks that there is no salt in the water. Reason to wonder: are we taking too much salt, or are we taking or keeping too little water? It seems that when we don’t drink enough water, little salt may appear too much. Also, as salt retains water in the body, it may be that salt deficiency leads to water deficiency and, thus, also to high blood pressure. So, that may explain why much salt intake may look like it increases blood pressure. Water makes blood. Little water equals little blood. Little blood equals narrowing of blood vessels in adjustment process. As the heart keeps pumping the same way, narrow vessels may result in higher systolic pressure (please see angiotensin-converting enzymes and RAS). Makes sense? Another interesting question: if high bp and cardiovascular problems were due to much salt consumption, why is it then that hypertensive patients are usually still kept on bp meds, for life, even when they drop salt consumption to a very low level, and follow AHA diet recommendations ( Logically, if the conventional practitioners and their pharmaceutical masters had it right, when you lower salt intake and follow AHA advice, your bp should return to normal and you should be able to stop the otherwise harmful bp meds. It seems that the conventional medicine became a guesswork, and some people are, thus, set to make a lot of money out of that mess (

      Take care,


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  18. 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”.

  19. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

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

  20. 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.

    • 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.

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  24. 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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