chef pteri on salt, From The Viand Zine Issue #1, 14 April, 2007
Salt. The oldest records come from 4,700 years ago in China where writings were found discussing more than 40 kinds of salt. In ancient Timbuktu salt was supposedly traded ounce for ounce with gold. In fact, the word salary comes from the words “salt money” in Latin. Slaves were once purchased with salt money giving meaning to the phrase “not worth his salt.” During the United States Civil War, part of the Union’s military strategy included the capture and/or destruction of sources of salt for the Confederate army. Food preserved with salt let humans survive harsh winters and humid climates where food could not be sufficiently dried. Life itself would be impossible without it, since the human body requires salt in order to function properly.
Given its importance, it’s fortunate that salt is one of the most common minerals on earth. Salty springs and lakes dry out to leave salt crystals that can be collected. Salt can be extracted from seawater by boiling or leaving it to evaporate. In some places, solid salt appears on the surface of the earth and can be collected or mined. Wells can be dug down to tap underground supplies of salty water. A Chinese writing found in 2,700 BC includes descriptions of two methods of extracting salt and putting it in usable form that are amazingly similar to processes used today.
The National Academy of Sciences advises that we consume at least 500 mg of sodium a day to maintain good health. However, what kind of salt should we be using?
Let’s start with iodized salt. Iodine, which is converted to iodide in the gastrointestinal tract, is needed for normal thyroid function. But your body doesn’t make iodine — you have to get some in your everyday diet. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy and early infancy can result in irreversible mental retardation and severe motor impairments in children. In adults low iodine intake (or very high intakes) can cause hypothyroidism. In this country, iodine deficiency was the number one cause for young men to be discharged from the army during World War I. In fact, iodine is so vital to a person’s overall health that in the 1920s U.S. government health officials recommended it be added to table salt.
Today, iodine deficiency has been virtually eliminated in this country. However iodine deficiency may be re-emerging as a public health issue. Although as a nation we consume excessive amounts of sodium in processed foods, those foods often do not contain salt in iodized form. In addition, Americans are eating more fancy salt—like kosher salt, sea salt, and fleur de sel — that don’t contain iodine.
The average adult needs roughly 150 micrograms of iodine per day. Recent studies show Americans are edging closer to the minimum than they have since the early 1970s. In fact, they are getting half as much as they did then. Fish and dairy products are rich natural sources of iodine, so are some seaweeds, such as wakame. With beef and dairy products the amount of iodine present depends on the iodine content of the soil where the cows were raised. Many multivitamins also contain iodine. Though it’s possible to overdo it with iodine, most opinions currently rest on less iodine being more harmful than too much.
Next, should we be using ordinary table salt or natural salt? This, to me, is more simple than the iodine question.
With the advent of industrial development, natural salt was “chemically cleaned” – think white sugar, bleached flour, etc. Today’s table salt is primarily kiln-dried sodium chloride with anti-caking agents added to keep it flowing freely from the salt shaker. Trace minerals, as well as calcium, magnesium and potassium salts are removed in processing. Kiln-drying involves scorching salt at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit to remove moisture. This amount of heat changes the chemical structure of the salt and creates a product that is unnatural and hard on the body.
Finally, with the growing popularity of sea salt it’s important to know that not all sea salt it created equally. If you are buying a big container of sea salt at the store for a small price you can bet you are getting a lesser grade and probably the rich nutritional elements have been extracted and sold separately to industry. Precious and highly prized by the salt refiners, these bring more profits than the salt itself.
In summary, salt is good for you in the right amount and in the right form. So please, pass the high-grade natural salt.