“Salt of the Earth” – in modern usage, someone who is humble and lacking pretension; a little different meaning today than its original scripture beginnings. In the ancient world, salt was a metaphor for wisdom in Rabbinic literature, and in the Old Testament several references all represent salt as God’s covenant as well as a purifying agent. In Greek times, salts in appropriate quantities were chemical agents in fertilizers, and disciples brought new life into the world.
When I get the opportunity to spend time with two of my favorite people our conversations are always animated and can go pretty tangential, like going from talking politics to coffee to food trends to travel to social dynamics and back. There’s never a pause. And today we got to talking about the fascinating the evolution of food, and who “discovered” anything from eating/how to eat an artichoke to the uses for salt.
Salt, like fat, has had a bad rap over the years. We’ve been fearfully warned to watch our salt intake. It will increase your blood pressure! It gives you high cholesterol! You’ll have a stroke! I find it highly unlikely that one organic compound can have such a severe impact on our health, so let’s go through the facts without fear.
A brief history of salt for fun... (mostly from Wikipedia, forgive me)
- The availability of salt is historically pivotal to civilization
- The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt because the Roman Legions were sometimes paid in salt, which was quite literally worth its weight in gold.
- In Africa, salt was used as currency south of the Sahara, and slabs of rock salt were used as coins; Moorish merchants in the 6th century traded salt for gold, weight for weight.
- Salzach literally means “salt river” and Salzburg “salt castle”, both taking their names from the German word Salz meaning “salt” and Hallstatt was the site of the world’s first salt mine
- During the first millennium BC, Celtic communities grew rich trading salt and salted meat to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome in exchange for wine and other luxuries
- The oppressive salt tax in France was one of the causes of the French Revolution.
- In the Middle East, salt was used to ceremonially seal an agreement, and the ancient Hebrews made a “covenant of salt” with God and sprinkled salt on their offerings to show their trust in him
Edible Salt Varieties
- Kosher – Kosher salt has a flaky structure that makes it easy to spread on top of your food. There is very little flavor difference compared to regular salt, although it is less likely to contain anti-caking agents and added iodine.
- Sea salt (the Maldon variety is one of my favorite garnishes for a meal) – made by evaporating seawater. It is very similar to regular salt, but can contain small amounts of minerals. It can also contain trace amounts of heavy metals if it is harvested from a polluted sea.
- Iodized –mixed with table salt; useful in underdeveloped countries where iodine deficiencies can lead to mental retardation, affect the thyroid gland as cretinism in children and hypothyroidism in adults. (The United States does not fall into this category.)
- Table – Refined table salt is mostly just sodium chloride, with substances called anti-caking agents added in order to prevent clumping. Iodine is often added to table salt.
- Celtic – Celtic salt has a light greyish color and is quite moist. It is made from seawater and contains trace amounts of minerals.
- Himalayan Pink Salt – harvested from a large salt mine in Pakistan. It has a pink color due to the presence of iron oxide. It also contains trace amounts of calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Salt + Food
Did you know the word salad literally means “salted”, and comes from the ancient Roman practice of salting leaf vegetables? Neat! Now I know why many chefs use salt to season their arugula salads! Salt started as a food preservative in pre-refrigeration times because of its antibacterial properties to keep cheeses and meats (cured bacon, anyone?) shelf stable. Vegetables also last longer when canned or pickled. Seasoning food also draws out the natural flavor of whatever you’re cooking.
Canning food was primarily used for military use and became popular in World War I once a the canning machine was invented and manufacturing/distribution made it cheaper and more accessible. World War II heavily contributed to the frozen food industry for easy storage and preparation on the battlefield. Post-war, food companies recognized the ease this would create in the home, and “convenience foods” were born: candy; beverages such as soft drinks, juices and milk; fast food; nuts, fruits and vegetables in fresh or preserved states; processed meats and cheeses; and canned products such as soups and pasta dishes. Additional convenience foods include frozen pizza, chips such as potato chips, pretzels,and cookies. Also, packaged mixes are convenience foods which typically require some preparation and cooking either in the oven or on the stove top, like cake mixes, macaroni and cheese, brownie, and gravy mixes.
Salt in the body directly affects muscle function, blood pH, hydration, and the transduction of brain signals. I’d say it’s just a little important for sustaining life; however, when it comes to eating salt itself, increasing or decreasing the amount won’t affect the mineral count in your body. That is going to come from your whole food diet.
Salt + Health
In most developed countries, 80% of consumed salt comes from industry-prepared food with 5% coming from natural-occurring salt; 15% from salt added during cooking or eating). A single serving of many convenience foods contains a significant portion of the recommended daily allowance of sodium. And how often do we ever eat just a single serving of anything?
I’ll take “Misreading Food Labels” for 500, Alex.
So if that’s the case, it’s not the meal per se that’s bad, but the TYPE of meal. Home cooks rejoice! Don’t fear the salt! Season with abandon! Ok, maybe don’t overdue it, balance is key.
A study published on April of 2013 was confirmed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the National Institutes of Health and the US National Library of Medicine to conclude that salt, sodium chloride (NaCl), in diets cannot be affirmatively linked to increased chance of stroke or other heart failure, but it did show a small affect on decreasing blood pressure
Despite collating more event data than previous systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials (665 deaths in some 6,250 participants), there is still insufficient power to exclude clinically important effects of reduced dietary salt on mortality or cardiovascular morbidity in normotensive or hypertensive populations. Further RCT evidence is needed to confirm whether restriction of sodium is harmful for people with heart failure. Our estimates of benefits from dietary salt restriction are consistent with the predicted small effects on clinical events attributable to the small blood pressure reduction achieved.
A later study published in December of 2014 also concluded that those who had salt restricted and those who did not, did not have statistically significant different chances in experiencing cardiovascular complications, like stroke, heart attack, or death.
Our findings do not support individual dietary advice as a means of restricting salt intake. It is possible that alternative strategies that do not require individual behaviour change may be effective and merit further trials.
So in summation: Salt isn’t bad for you. It’s certainly not going to lead to your ultimate demise in the form of a painful stroke or heart attack. The “safest” salt to cook with is Kosher, at least for my peace of mind. The history of salt is fascinating.