In the past I wrote about frozen foods and the advancement of them. I learned this after reading a book by Marc Kurlansky and recently went back to read some of the other books about specific foods from his repertoire. This month I’m going to write of the things I learned after reading his book about salt called Salt: A World History.
The origin of salt came with the realization that it preserved things. It preserved mostly food, but the Egyptians also used salt in the preservation of mummies. Salt is also a common element of many religions. In the Jewish religion salt is the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel. On Friday nights Jewish people dip the sabbath bread in salt. In both Jewish and Islam religions salt is symbolized to seal a bargain, because it is a mineral that is unchangeable. Yes, it will change its physical make up if it’s dissolved in liquid but if you evaporate the liquid the salt crystals will return. In Christianity salt is associated with permanence and longevity but also with truth and wisdom.
How much salt should you consume? This is a very vast range depending on who you talk to. Some estimates range from 10 ounces to 16 pounds a year, depending on many factors. One of the factors is where you live. This factor definitely affects the needed intake of table salt or NaCl. For people that live in hot climates or do work that creates a lot of perspiration the intake needs to be increased to make up for the salt that’s lost while perspiring. Effects of too little salt in the body can be headaches and muscle weakness as well as lightheadedness and nausea. If deprived long enough the person might die.
One of the most common additives to table salt is iodine. Since 1924 iodine has been added to table salt because it was a good way to supplement the nutrients in the body. It was originally added to reduce incidences of fibroid enlargement as well as goiters. It is estimated that nearly 1/3 of the world’s population has a diet with too little iodine in it, which is not a big problem in the United States due to the iodine supplement in the table salt. Studies made from before the 1924 addition of iodine and after that date have shown that IQ levels have risen with the increase in iodine consumption.
The history of salt goes back 8,000 years, with the first documentation being in China. In a northern province in a very dry area is a very salty lake. This area was under siege quite a bit due to the salt in the water. When the dry season would come and the water evaporated it would leave the salt crystals which would be harvested by whoever was living in the area. 3,000 years ago, it is documented, the Chinese would harvest water from the ocean and lakes and boil it until all that was left was the salt. This method has been used continually since then. Interestingly in Chinese cookery there’s very little use of salt directly on food, but it has been added into condiments such as soy sauce. Many Asian foods start off with fermenting food products, which can be made with the addition of salt or without. The main difference comes from the fact that if fermentation occurs without salt, then alcohol production will occur.
There are many types of salt and places where the mineral is harvested. The most common is table salt which is a refined salt containing around 98% sodium chloride and the rest anti-caking agents, in most cases potassium iodine. Other salts that are available have different flavor profiles and different chemical makeup depending on where the salt is harvested. Unrefined sea salt is one option as is kosher salt which are larger grain than table salt and pickling salt which is ground very fine to help speed up dissolving. Naturally most foods contain trace amounts of salt, including meats, vegetables and fruit and in most cases processed food has salt added. When salt is added it functions as a preservative and flavoring and might increase natural sodium contents by 10 to 20 times. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 2,000 mg of sodium per day; in perspective 1 teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium.
The most common place salt is retrieved from is the sea which has a salinity of approximately 3.5%. This accounts for 25% of all the salt produced. Another place that salt is mined quite extensively is in salt mountains which are created by thousands of years of evaporation of seas and lakes. Most of this salt is used as rock salt and not for ingestion.
One of the largest salt mines in the world is in Pakistan and it runs 18 stories with 11 of them underground. Salt is mined throughout the United States and Canada in both rural and suburban areas. This includes Detroit which has been producing salt for more than a century and in Cleveland where it’s mined 1,800 feet below street level. These underground salt deposits are mined using explosives in the tunnels, which can produce up to 900 tons of salt in less than three seconds.