Salt is essential for life. It is one of the five basic human tastes and most often used mineral for flavoring food. Although it has gotten a bad reputation as of late, this mineral is a key factor in maintaining good health. Salt is a mineral primarily composed of sodium chloride (NaCl). According to Dr. Saeed Hayek, IFANCA Food Scientist and Quality Manager, “Salt or sodium chloride, it is not just a food preservative and taste and flavor enhancer; salt has many health benefits for our bodies. Salt regulates the kidney function, helps control the body’s fluid balance, and helps nerve and muscle functions. It maintains the body’s hydration levels, electrolyte balance, and blood pressure.”

Salt has been used to preserve meats, seafood, and vegetables since the days of antiquity. Curing, pickling, and brining are different types of processes in which salt was used to draw out moisture to expand the shelf life of food. It is hard for bacteria to survive in salty environments, so salt has been useful in helping to delay or prevent bacterial  growth. Most bacteria or pathogenic organisms cannot survive because living cells will either dehydrate through osmosis or become inactivated. While refrigerators and freezers serve to preserve our food, salt remains a main ingredient for flavoring and preservation in processed foods.

There are several types of salt. We’re most familiar with table salt, which is finely refined and finely ground into small cube-shaped bits. Added anti-caking agents keep it from clumping. Most table salt has iodine added to avoid iodine deficiency, which can lead to hyperthyroidism or low levels of the thyroid hormone, —a problem that affects more than a third of the world’s population. Thyroid hormones are responsible for growth, repairing damaged cells, and maintaining metabolism.

Himalayan pink salt is a trending item due to its pretty pink coloring and popularity among alternative health enthusiasts. . It is harvested by hand from the Khewra Salt Mines in the Himalayan Mountains of Pakistan and is considered the purest salt in the world. Because it contains 84 minerals found in the human body, many have replaced their table salt for this more robust one. The various minerals also lend a bolder taste which makes it great for cooking.

Sea salt is made from evaporated sea water and contains zinc, potassium, and iron. These minerals give sea salt a very distinct flavor. Celtic sea salt, mined from the bottom of tidal ponds off the coast of France, is gray colored and has a briny taste. Fleur de sel, known as the caviar of salts, is mined from the coast of Brittany, France. Because of its scarcity and labor intensive harvesting methods, it can five pounds of it could cost four dollars per ounce. Fleur de sel is used by master chefs worldwide and is great as a finishing salt for vegetables, meats, and even on chocolate and caramel. Black Hawaiian salt is, of course, black, coarse-grained and chunky. It is mined from Hawaii’s volcanoes. Red Hawaiian salt resembles small red gemstones. It makes a tasty and decorative garnish on meat or seafood. Kosher salt tends to be flakier and coarser. It makes a good all-purpose cooking salt as it dissolves quickly. It has a nice burst of flavor and it is great for pretzel and bread making.

Because so much of the average American diet contains processed food, we can easily overconsume our daily allowance of salt. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 2,000 mg of sodium or five grams of salt per day. The American Health Association recommends no more than 1,500 mg of sodium. The average American consumes more than 3,500 mg of sodium a day. And while there are many types of salt to choose from, chemically they are the same. “All salt contains 40 percent sodium,” says Mandy Enright, R.D.N., a nutritionist and fitness trainer in New Jersey. “That means pink Himalayan salt, French sea salt, and kosher salt are all just as bad as the stuff that comes in packets at restaurants.” So just as too little salt intake can be detrimental, so is too much. When grocery shopping, check the labels, especially on processed foods. “Anything with five percent or less per serving is considered a low-sodium source, while 20 percent or more is considered a high-sodium source,” Enright says.

Too much salt consumption can cause bloating and water retention. Other tell-tale signs of high sodium intake is extreme thirst and frequent headaches. Hayek says, “High intake of salt may cause trouble for the kidneys trying to keep up with the excess sodium in the bloodstream. The accumulation of sodium in the body would increase the amount of fluid and the volume of blood. This may require more work for the heart and more pressure on blood vessels. This may also lead to high blood pressure, heart failure or damage to the kidneys.” The American Health Association warns against “The Salty Six:” breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, processed chicken, canned soups, and sandwiches.

There are many ways to liven up your meals without packing on the sodium. You can choose natural herbs and spices as alternatives. Herbs and spices have moderate levels of sodium in their natural states. For meat and seafood dishes, you can trade salt for turmeric, rosemary, chives, cumin, paprika, or oregano. For salads, try mint, parsley, or basil. And for sweet dishes or desserts, use cardamom or cinnamon. Yaqutullah Ibraheem Muhammad, MS, RDN, LD, recommends, “Low sodium alternatives that are available in the marketplace. I don’t recommend potassium chloride because there are so many flavorful herb and spice alternatives including anti-inflammatory seasonings that add flavor such as turmeric, garlic, ginger, curry, and cumin.” You can enjoy healthy, flavorful foods without sacrificing taste. So watch the salt!

Kelly Crosby is an artist and a freelance writer in Atlanta, Georgia.