A Grain of Salt

I was taking the can of peanuts that I had just bought out of the bag, and I noticed that they were made with sea salt. So, what's the difference, I thought. After all, salt is salt, right? As I was to find out, salt is not just salt, there are many different kinds of salt.

There is table salt, kosher salt, popcorn salt, salt for canning and pickling, ice cream salt, bath salt, road salt, ancient sea salt and salt from the Dead Sea... There are also several varieties of gourmet salt.

The first written reference to salt is found in the Book of Job, recorded about 2,250 BC. There are 31 other references to salt in the Bible, the most familiar being the story of Lot's wife who was turned into a pillar of salt.

Salt has played a major role in history. "He is not worth his salt" is a common expression that originated in ancient Greece where salt was traded for slaves.

Roman soldiers were paid in salt money, "salarium argentums" from which we take the word "salary."

Salt has also played a major role in time of war. Thousands of Napoleon's troops perished while retreating from Russia because they lacked enough salt in their diets to sustain them. George Washington's troops also suffered when the British captured Washington's salt supply. Salt is a necessary part of the body's function, without it the body cannot regulate itself, repair injury or ward off disease.

Salt played a key role in the Civil War. In December 1864, Union forces made a forced march and fought a 36-hour battle to capture Saltville, Virginia, the site of an important salt processing plant. Civilian distress over the lack of salt undermined rebel home front morale too.

During the War of 1812 with England, it became very difficult to obtain salt from abroad. Because of this, commercial production of salt began in Syracuse, New York. During the Civil War, Syracuse production freed the North of all salt problems, but by 1863, Southerners could not buy salt at any price. If the South had been able to protect its salt factories in Virginia and its salt deposits along the Louisiana gulf coast, the War Between the States might have ended differently.

Salt (Sodium Chloride, 40% sodium and 60% chloride) is an essential nutrient that the body cannot manufacture itself. Because of sodium's importance to your body, several interacting mechanisms guard against under-consumption of salt and its threat to your body's nerves and muscles and interference with the sodium-potassium "pump" which adjusts intra- and extra- cellular pressures. If salt intake varies widely, these mechanisms activate to assure that your body remains healthy.

There seems to be some confusion regarding the amount of salt a person should consume. There is also argument as to whether or not salt is actually the villain in cardiovascular problems.

One study conducted by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) suggests that reducing salt intake does not significantly reduce the incidence of heart attacks. For instance, an eight-year study of a New York City hypertensive population stratified for sodium intake levels found those on low-salt diets had more than four times as many heart attacks as those on normal-sodium diets - the exact opposite of what the "salt hypothesis" would have predicted. (1995)

An analysis of the health outcomes over twenty years from those in the massive US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES I) documented a 20% greater incidence of heart attacks among those on low-salt diets compared to normal salt diets. (1998)

The American Medical Assoc., The American Heart Assoc., The American Dietetic Assoc. and The National institutes of Health have begun a campaign to cut the salt intake of Americans by one-half. The AMA is even pushing the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw salt's designation as "safe."

The consequences of too much salt are hypertension, or high blood pressure, which increases the risk of a stroke or heart attack. Ninety percent of Americans will develop hypertension unless they take steps to prevent it. Two studies reported in the April 19, 2009 issue of the British Medical Journal showed that people who cut back on the amount of salt in their diets by 25-35 percent could reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 25 percent.

How much salt is safe? The National Academy of Sciences recommends that Americans consume a minimum of 500 mg/day of sodium. However, the average American takes in 4,000 milligrams of sodium daily. According to the F.D.A., most people can safely ingest up to 2,400 milligrams a day - which is about one teaspoon of salt.

Most of our salt intake comes from processed foods. Most makers of processed foods use bland or low-cost ingredients and then add sodium to provide flavor. In a study by the A.M.A. they found that one turkey Panini from the Panera Bread chain contained 2,390 Mg of sodium. A Starbucks cinnamon roll contains 700 milligrams, while a large white hot chocolate at Dunkin' Donuts holds 60 milligrams.

There are approximately 14,000 known uses for salt, for cooking, cleaning, bathing as well as that used for soft water and, don't forget, de-icing the roads in winter. It is estimated that every American born will need 29,530 pounds of salt during their life.

Until recently, salt was considered a basic commodity, salt was just salt. Now however, gourmet chefs, in homes and in restaurants, have learned to appreciate and distinguish between the distinctive qualities of the many varieties of sea salts and how these salts enhance the flavors and finish of foods. Some of the varieties of "gourmet salts" are: Black Salt, Celtic Salt, Coarse Salt, Flake Salt, Fleur de Sel, French Sea Salt, Grey Salt, Grinder Salt, Hawaiian Sea Salt, Italian Sea Salt, Kosher Salt, Organic Salt, Sea Salt, Smoked Sea Salt and, of course, Table Salt. Each of these is distinctively different, imparting their own unique flavor in their use.

The salt industry was revolutionized in 1911 when the Morton Salt Co. introduced the cylinder. Until that time, salt was sold in large bags, and the salt would not pour when the weather was wet. Morton's new product was moisture proof, had a perfect shape for pouring, and it came with its own handy spout.

Salt is frequently found in myth and superstition and rituals. The most common superstition in modern times is the assumption that evil sprits are roused if you accidentally spill salt. Tossing a pinch of the spilled salt will prevent the ire of these spirits and ward off bad luck.

Tossing a pinch of salt at a gypsy is the antidote for a curse they have placed on you. If you are a bride, then sprinkle a pinch of salt onto your dress for a happy marriage. If you want a lover to return, then burn salt on seven consecutive mornings. Throwing salt after someone who has just visited the house is said to ensure that they do not return for a long time.

According to the Germans, a girl who neglects to put the salt on the table is revealing the fact that she is no longer a virgin. Too much salt in the food is sometimes interpreted as a sign that the cook is in love.

The history of salt dates back over three thousand years. It is an indispensible part of our culture. In medicine it may be used in a saline solution for cleansing wounds. In some areas of the world, it is a part of punishment, causing great pain when rubbed into an open wound. Its history is long and fascinating, and where facts collide, should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.