Salt's color varies from bright white to black. It can be refined or unrefined, powdery or rock-like. It is vital to the bodily functions of both animals and plants, but eating too little or too much of it can create serious health problems. Experts say that the world's potential supply of salt is limitless, yet it has been used as currency, and countries have fought over it throughout the ages. Virtually the same substance sprinkled out of salt shakers in kitchens today has been harvested or mined by civilizations and societies of the past eight millennia.
Formally, research points to remains from the salt springs in Lunca, Romania as one of the earliest sites of salt harvest around 6050 BC. There is also evidence of an ancient salt works operation using water from Xiechi Lake in China in 6000 BC. One of the oldest books on pharmacology, written in China around 2700 BC, describes 40 different types of salt and instructions on methods of harvest.
Around the same time period, the Egyptians were not only harvesting and using salt in foods, as offerings and in preserving meat, fish and mummies, but trading it for goods from the Phoenicians as well. The Phoenicians in turn traded it throughout the Mediterranean.
In spite of the range of colors from bright white to black, salt is salt. Taste may vary slightly in these unrefined, or natural, salts, because of differences in minerals and nutrients. Refined or not, salt used in foods is sodium chloride, NaCl.
The ruling classes began considering salt's appeal and necessity. From this point on, whoever controlled the salt production controlled the economy. A blockade of Iberian salt works during the Dutch Revolt in the late 1500s led to Spain's bankruptcy. Many governments, beginning with China, realized the mineral was a staple for both human consumption and food preservation and imposed salt taxes that lasted into the 20th century.
In France, the gabelle (salt tax) became cause for the French Revolution when only a few friends of the royals were granted the right to produce salt, which led to a salt shortage and a tax increase from 14 to 140 times the cost of production. Mahatma Gandhi's "Salt Satyagraha" in 1930 was an act of defiance against the British salt tax and colonization where protestors began making their own salt from the sea, and it inspired India's independence movement.
The Celts developed what is considered the first salt mine in Hallstatt ("hall" meaning salt) in today's world. This culture thrived in the salt trade with Greece and Rome. Salt was considered such a valuable commodity that it was used as currency in payment for Greek slaves and to active Roman soldiers.
Make flavored salt
The basic ratio is 1/4 cup of coarse sea salt or kosher salt to 1 or 2 teaspoons of ground, dried flavoring. Combine the ingredients using a mortar and pestle, small food processor or coffee/nut grinder. Leave texture somewhat rough for finishing salt, or add more coarse salt to the mixture for desired texture. Put mixture into small, airtight container, and let sit at least overnight before the first use.
Flavorings can include dried citrus (cut very thin slices from one piece of citrus, spread on cookie sheet and dry in oven set at 200 degrees for 90 to 120 minutes; chop one or two slices in grinder or processor to add to 1/4 cup of salt; combine as above). Dried herbs are also popular infusions, as are chili peppers.
In the United States, researchers estimate that Native Americans were harvesting salt 500 years before the first settlers arrived. Once here, though, said settlers began salt production along the east coast, and it became West Virginia's first mineral industry. The State of New York set up a treaty with the Onondaga tribe and a Land Act of 1795 for salt reservations that would prevent monopolies. The primary cargo on the Erie Canal was salt, and Syracuse was known as "Salt City."
During both the American Revolution and the Civil War, salt production sites became prime targets for defense and capture. By the mid-1800s the industry had 3,000 workers turning out 225,000 tons by boiling water and brine, and there were 442 salt works on Cape Cod alone. California and sites along the Great Salt Lake in Utah began producing salt through the solar method, collecting salt residue from evaporating water in the sun.
The means for harvesting salt has changed little, but there are various types now for human consumption and for industrial use. All "salt" for the purposes of this article is sodium chloride (NaCl), with varying degrees of other minerals or additives.
Refined salt includes both table salt and commercial grade salt and is the most common form of salt used. Nearly 80 percent produced is used for its chemical by products of chlorine and caustic soda for manufacturing and industry: textiles, soaps and detergents, paper, plastics, PVC, water softeners, de-icers and snow removal. Salt is also used as a food preservative and flavor enhancer in processed foods.
Table salt, usually bright white, may include several additives including potassium iodide, sodium iodide or sodium iodate, creating iodized salt. This was marketed beginning in 1924 to reduce the incidence of mental retardation and thyroid problems due to iodine deficiency in the body. Dextrose, a sugar, may be added to iodized salt for stabilization.
Anti-caking agents such as sodium ferrocyanide, magnesium oxide or calcium aluminocilicate, among other compounds, may also be added in small amounts. Some people add a few grains of rice in their salt shakers to absorb moisture.
Unrefined salt, or natural salt, is minimally processed outside of harvesting or mining. While it does not contain additives like iodine, natural salts do contain trace minerals garnered from their environments. These might include valuable natural substances like magnesium, calcium, iron or copper. The presence of these additional minerals - and salt is a mineral not a spice - will also add flavor notes and color to the salt, depending on where it was harvested. Regular table salt has only the taste of sodium chloride. Natural salt should be kept in a tightly sealed container because it will pull moisture from the air and become bitter.
Himalayan pink salt is an example of unrefined salt. It is hand-harvested in the Himalayas and contains 84 trace elements and minerals. Researchers say regular use could balance the body's pH and electrolytes, promote nutrient absorption and help eliminate toxins.
Most black salt gets its color from activated charcoal rather than volcanic rock, but activated charcoal has been used medicinally for more than 3,000 years. It has been shown to be a natural detoxifier and promotes anti-aging activity at the cellular level, especially in the kidneys, liver and adrenal glands.
As for health benefits, the sodium ions in salt regulate fluids in blood cells and assist with transmitting information through nerves and muscles and help pick up nutrients in the intestines. Humans must eat salt because the body cannot produce it.
For decades, doctors have cautioned against eating too much salt. Adverse long-term effects can include increased risk of high blood pressure, edema, enlargement of the heart, stomach cancer and stroke. Symptoms of too much or too little salt intake range from dizziness and muscle cramps to neurological irregularities that could lead to death.
The latest studies, however, show that the recommended daily requirements may actually be lower than necessary and that the minimum requirement of 1,500 milligrams could be too low for most people. A committee commissioned by the Institute of Medicine and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention determined that dropping daily sodium levels below 2,300 mg provides no benefit and, in fact, could increase health risks for heart attack and even death.
One 2011 study found that negative effects were apparent when patients consumed 7,000 mg of sodium per day, but those taking in 3,000 mg showed no marked effects. Results from an Italian study in 2008 compared congestive heart failure patients taking in either 2,700 mg per day or 1,800 mg per day but were otherwise on the same diet. Those taking the lower level dose had three times the number of hospital readmissions as the higher level group and twice as many deaths.
Reading labels at the grocery store is the best way to determine how much salt (sodium) you are ingesting. It is in all processed foods, including frozen pizzas and dinners, soups, sauces, deli meats and boxed foods like flavored rice, potatoes, ice cream, pop, cereal and crackers.
Salt also pervades the language, relating especially to words with the Latin "sal" meaning "salt." The word "salary" comes from the practice of paying Roman soldiers with salt. "Salad" also came from the Romans, who liked to sprinkle salt on their greens and vegetables. The Italian word "salami" refers to salted meat.
The phrase "worth his salt" comes from the Greek slave trade when owners paid the traders in salt. Accepting a statement "with a grain of salt" means to remain skeptical. It stems from the idea that food tastes better with a little salt, as stated by Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder in an antidote for poison.
As with most things, moderation is best. Anyone considering increasing or reducing salt intake should check with a doctor before doing so, as well as being aware of any possible reactions with medications.