The Wild Guide To Salt
“Where would we be without salt?”
— James Beard
"Please pass the salt.”
How often do you hear this phrase at the dinner table without considering why it's so common?
Why do we crave salt?
What is the history of salt?
Did you know that salt is a rock?
Did you know that the idea of watching your salt intake is based on lousy science?
There is more to salt than its ability to impress dinner guests. Yet most of us aren't aware of just how integral salt is to human health, not to mention where it comes from or the interesting ways it is harvested.
We will cover:
- Where salt comes from, and how it become so important to humans
- Whether too much salt bad for health
- How much salt we need
Salt is a rock.
In more complex terms, a grain of salt is an ionic compound resulting from an acid's neutralization reaction and a base. These are made up of the same number of cations and anions, so they don't conduct electricity. These component ions can be inorganic, like chloride, or organic, like acetate.
You might think salt only comes in one color. Still, salt can also come in yellow (sodium chromate), orange (potassium dichromate), red (cobalt nitrate), mauve (cobalt chloride hexahydrate), blue (copper sulfate pentahydrate, ferric hexacyanoferrate), purple (potassium permanganate), and green (nickel chloride hexahydrate).
However, the common salt we see and serve is table salt.
Sodium and Salt
Are salt and sodium the same thing? Remember that we learned in chemistry that salt is the combination of Na (sodium) and Cl (Chloride).
Sodium is considered a mineral and an electrolyte because it carries an electric charge. It works with other electrolyte minerals, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium, to balance the water levels in the body's cells.
Sodium is important for overall health because it controls the way the heart muscle contracts and the amount of blood in the body.
For example, certain foods are rich in sodium, like celery, beets, and milk.
Where We Get Salt
To get salt nowadays, you only have to reach the table or buy it at the grocery store. However, this was not always the case; in the past, when people wanted salt, they had to take it from the sea or even mine it from the ground. Yes, they mined it!
The two primary sources of salt are the sea and the sodium chloride mineral, halite, also called rock salt.
Before man could make iron tools that were strong enough to crack the earth, salt was derived from its most obvious source, the seas, and oceans. Ancient humans built ponds that allowed seawater to come in at high tide but prevented it from flowing back out as the tide reversed.
The pond was big enough to contain a lot of seawater but shallow enough to let the water evaporate quickly, leaving sea salt behind, which was then collected for use. In some places, this even occurred as a natural consequence of the tide and geography, without the need to dig ponds.
But what about earth salt? How did salt get into the earth?
According to Dr. Ken Rubin, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's Department of Geology and Geophysics, some salt deposits inside the world started as surface salt deposits left behind by large bodies of water. Over time, the natural geologic movement of the planet and marine sediment buried these deposits.
There are many such locations all over the world. In the United Kingdom, such formations can be found in Cheshire and around Droitwich. In Transylvania, Maramures, and southern Poland, medieval workers cut caves yielding high-quality rock salt.
Austria also has its share of salt mines, and one of its cities, Salzburg, was named after them. Another city named after salt is Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tuzla is the Turkish word for salt.
In the United States and Canada, extensive underground salt beds run from the Appalachian basin of western New York through parts of Ontario and under much of the Michigan basin. Salt deposits are also in Texas, Ohio, Kansas, New Mexico, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan.
Either conventional mining or solution mining are both used to extract salt from underground beds. In answer, mining water is used to bring salt to the surface as brine. The brine is later evaporated, leaving salt crystals behind.
Man started using salt long before recorded history. A treatise on pharmacology published in China dating around 2700 B.C. talks about more than 40 kinds of salt, their uses, and how they are extracted. The descriptions are similar to processes still being used today.
Salt production continued in China for two more millennia, and eventually, the administrations of Chinese dynasties would tax the use and display of salt.
Salt had another quality that made it worthwhile and allowed the preservation of food like meat, fish, or fruit, which would otherwise quickly spoil. Aside from being stored longer, surplus food was now available for trade. This also let the food travel on longer voyages.
The nomads that spread to and populated the west were known to carry salt with them, and as trade flourished, “salt routes” crisscrossed the globe over the following centuries.
Salt became so precious in some areas of the world that it was used as currency
In the 6th century sub-Sahara, Moorish merchants routinely traded salt for gold ounce for ounce. In Abyssinia, they used slabs of rock salt ten inches long and two inches thick, called 'amôlés’ as currency. Cakes of salt were also used as money in other areas of central Africa.
Salt was used as currency in many parts of Asia as well. Marco Polo, returning from his first voyage to Cathay, describes using salt coins.
Salt making is a big part of the history of the United Kingdom. Venice rose to economic greatness through its salt monopoly, while France was a significant salt producer after its establishment as a nation.
Let's look at just how important salt was to the ancient world (compared to how much we take it for granted today): Without salt, civilization could not have happened.
Game animals followed salt licks, and men followed the game animals. The constant cycle of men going after animals going after salt licks created paths, which soon became roads, and eventually became trade routes linking village to village and town to town. The rest, as they say, is history.
In ancient Greece, salt was used to buy enslaved people. The expression “not worth his salt” meant an enslaved person was not equal to the price being asked for.
You may have heard that ancient Roman legionnaires were paid in salt. This is a common misconception and only partially true. They received a special salt ration called the "salarium Argentum." It would later evolve into the English word "salary." Salt was a necessity since it could be used to preserve food or as an antiseptic for wounds sustained in battle.
Different languages around the world have their references to salt. The words "sauce" and "sausage" can trace their etymology to the early words for salt.
Salt plays a big part in religious rituals in many cultures worldwide. The Roman Catholic bible has more than 30 references to salt, including the well-known expression "salt of the earth" to mean someone or something vital. In many cultures, salt is a weapon that can be used against evil beings or creatures.
Types of Salt
Who hasn’t experienced losing their voice or not being able to speak above a squeak? Sore throats, also called pharyngitis, can be caused by viruses or bacteria, and it can also be a consequence of allergies, pollution, smoking, irritants in the air, and even dry air.
Viral sore throats are often accompanied by other cold symptoms like runny nose, cough, watery eyes, and frequent sneezing.
A sore throat can be relieved with the traditional remedy of salt and hot water. Gargle, spit, and repeat.
Salt helps maintain dental hygiene
Salt isn’t only good for your throat. The rest of the mouth can benefit from it as well. Salt is good, although painful way, to treat canker sores.
Salt can also treat painful bacterial infections like trenching the mouth. Trench mouth, named after the condition suffered by many World War I soldiers who could not get access to dental treatment in the trenches of Europe, can cause ulcers in the gums.
Trench mouth can be soothed using a salt water rinse. Mixing 1/2 teaspoon salt with 1 cup warm water helps reduce swelling and soothe sore gums.
Did you know that salt can also be used in place of toothpaste? Humans cleaned their teeth with salt during the pre-toothpaste days. However, it would be best if you also were careful how much salt you use for this purpose, as too much salt can be too abrasive and damage your teeth.
As a preventive oral hygiene measure, remove plaque, whiten teeth, and keep the gums healthy; you can clean teeth with a mixture of 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda in 1 qt. of warm water.
Salt can be a source of iodine
Salt is a good way of introducing iodine into the body. (Not all salts though.)
Our bodies need iodine but cannot produce it as a natural process. Iodine is vital for the manufacturing of thyroid hormones. If the body gets enough iodine, the thyroid enlarges to keep up with the body’s demand for thyroid hormones.
When the body cannot get enough iodine, or when we suffer from an iodine deficiency, the thyroid will have trouble developing, causing hypothyroidism and goiter.
Thyroid hormones are also crucial in developing brain and bone structure. This is why expectant mothers and young children must maintain adequate iodine levels.
Salt provides energy and promotes muscle movement
The body doesn’t only run on calories, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It also runs on salt. Water and salt that regulates all the metabolic functions of the body. You need salt or you don't exist.
Muscle tissue and neurons of the body are considered electric tissues as they conduct electricity. Electrolyte signals tell our different muscles to contract and expand. If there aren’t enough electrolytes in the body, this may lead to muscle weakness or severe muscle contractions.
Maintain electrolytes through salt
Do you know what else runs on salt? Your thoughts. Without natural salt, you wouldn’t be able to produce ideas or translate those thoughts into words.
Salt helps relieve muscle cramps
Sometimes too much exercise can lead to muscle cramps. According to the Mayo Clinic, a muscle cramp occurs when a muscle is overused. However, inadequate blood supply, nerve compression, and mineral depletion can also cause cramping.
Those who suffer from medical conditions like diabetes, liver disorders, or thyroid disorders may frequently suffer from cramps.
Age can also factor in muscle cramping since the body typically loses muscle mass as a natural consequence of aging. Alcoholism and some medications can also cause cramping.
Drinking fluids that contain salt can provide relief from cramps.
Salt helps prevent and treat hyponatremia
The body needs the right amount of sodium to maintain normal blood pressure and the smooth functioning of the nerves and muscles. This is called hyponatremia, when there is a shortage of sodium in the fluids outside the cells. Hyponatremia is caused by several conditions, including overhydration with water, sweat, or diarrhea.
When the body senses there isn’t enough sodium, water enters the cells to compensate for this loss. This results in an imbalance of the water-to-salt ratio in the body, causing swelling in the cells due to excess water.
This swelling is not a threat to most of the cells in your body, but brain cells are at risk since they are restricted inside the confines of the skull. This swelling in the brain cells leads to hyponatremia.
Hyponatremia can cause nausea, vomiting, and headaches at best if not treated. Other effects include short-term memory loss, confusion, lethargy, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps, and seizures. In extreme cases, it can result in decreased consciousness or even coma.
Salt and cystic fibrosis
This is a hereditary disorder that affects the exocrine glands. Malformed proteins cause the production of abnormally thick mucus, leading to the blockage of the pancreatic ducts, intestines, and bronchi, often resulting in respiratory infection.
This condition also prevents the optimum movement of salt and water in and out of the cells, resulting in very sticky, salty sweat. This, in turn, leads to the loss of water and salt.
Cystic fibrosis can be diagnosed by testing the salt content of sweat. People suffering from cystic fibrosis lose more salt than average when perspiring.
Salt for treating chronic rhinosinusitis
This happens with the inflammation of the nose and paranasal sinuses. Those suffering from chronic rhinosinusitis experience at least two or more symptoms for at least 12 weeks:
Pain or pressure in their face
Hyposmia (reduced sense of smell)
Some people may also suffer from nasal polyps, described as grape‐like swellings of the usual nasal lining inside the nasal passage and sinuses.
Nasal irrigation, also called nasal douche or lavage, is a procedure that rinses the nasal cavity with isotonic or saltwater solutions. The saline solution is introduced into one nostril and drains out from the other nostril, bathing the nasal cavity.
Saline nasal irrigation can be done with a nebulizer or gravity‐based pressure using a vessel with a nasal spout. It can also be performed with low positive pressure from a spray, pump, or squirt bottle; make sure you know what you’re doing first.
Salt can protect against heat stroke
Also called sunstroke happens when the body’s heat-regulating system can no longer deal with the heat the body is experiencing.
High temperatures pose a threat to the major organs of the body. Typically, the body is designed to be able to release heat properly to cool the body down to average temperatures. It does this by producing sweat through the sweat glands. The more heat it has to displace, the more we sweat. When that happens, we lose too much essential salt and water within a short period.
Heat stroke can happen to people outside in the sun and high temperatures for an extended period. Older adults and tiny babies are at greater risk of heat stroke since their internal thermostat is not as efficient.
Consuming adequate amounts of salt maintains the electrolyte balance and prevents heat stroke. A person suffering heat stroke should be administered fluids containing sugar and salt.
Salt helps deal with diabetes
Those with diabetes need high levels of insulin to maintain fitness. A low-salt diet can weaken the body’s sensitivity toward insulin. This reduces the body’s ability to metabolize glucose, causing insufficient energy levels in the liver, muscles, and nervous system, possibly leading to Type 2 diabetes.
According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, having diabetes doesn’t mean cutting salt and sodium from your diet.
Salt for rehydration treatment
Loss of water and salt through sweat is always a risk for those who work outside in the heat, frequently engage in a lot of physical activity, or do a lot of heavy exercises.
When no immediate medical treatment is available, doctors recommend mixing water, salt and sugar and drinking to replace lost fluids immediately.
Salt for soaking
Salt isn’t just good for your insides; your outsides, particularly your feet, can also benefit. An old home remedy calls for a foot soak in hot water mixed with salt to relieve pain or feel good. Is there more to this than just getting foot pampering?
Soaking feet in warm salted water will help clean the feet, removing substances that may risk or worsen infections. Most bacteria do not thrive in a salty environment, so a warm salty soak can be sure to kill whatever bacteria may be lurking in your feet.
This also is good for skin exfoliation because it removes dead skin cells. The warm water also improves blood flow to the skin, promoting healing.
Finally, soaking feet in warm or hot water feels good! It’s relaxing, soothing, and reduces stress.
It helps to keep track of how much salt you consume when it comes in the form of premade, processed foods.
When you are cooking meals at home, there's no need to track salt intake... you'll know it because your food will taste too salty if you use too much!
As it's been with most food and health research over the past 100 years, the research around salt and hypertension is correlational nonsense.
It's so bad that you can ignore it entirely.
We won't go into dispelling all of these poorly backed recommendations relate to salt intake. Instead we'll leave you with this: Salt is an essential nutrient to the human body, meaning you need to eat it to stay alive.
It's naturally occurring and integral to many bodily processes. So let your body tell you when you've had enough. That's it.
The key to salt is choosing high-quality salts that have ben derived from natural processes rather than heavy machinery and chemical processes. the quality of the salt.
You want salt that comes from deep under the earth or the sea. Sea salt and rock salts are naturally harvested and don't contain anything extra.
Check out the full Wild Foods line of premium all-natural salts!