Wild Guide to Salt
A Wild Guide
“Please pass the salt.”
How often is that something you hear at you dinner table?
But do you stop to consider what salt actually is, and where it comes from, and what effect it has on your body?
Most of us take salt for granted. We usually think about salt only when we are trying to impress our friends with our newest culinary masterpiece and we remember that salt is part of the equation.
But there is more to salt than it's 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.
So, where does salt come from and how did it become so important to us?
Is too much salt bad for us?
How much of it do we really need?
What is salt really?
To break salt down to its basics, a grain of salt is an ionic compound that results from the neutralization reaction of an acid and a base. These are composed of related numbers of cations and anions so that the product is electrically neutral. These component ions can be inorganic, like chloride, or organic, like acetate.
You might think salt only comes in one color, but 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 known as table salt.
Sodium and salt
Are salt and sodium the same thing? No. 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 an integral part of overall health as it regulates heart muscle contractions and controls blood volume.
Certain foods are rich in sodium like celery, beets, and milk, for example.
Where we get salt
To get salt nowadays you only have to reach over 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 main sources of salt are the sea and the sodium chloride mineral, halite, which is 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 in the world 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 of the University of Hawaii’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, some salt deposits that ended up inside the earth started as surface salt deposits left behind by large bodies of water. Over time, the natural geologic movement of the earth 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 their cities, Salzburg, was named after them. Another city named after salt is Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tuzla being the Turkish word for salt.
In the United States and Canada there are extensive underground salt beds that run from the Appalachian basin of western New York through parts of Ontario and under much of the Michigan basin. There are also salt deposits in Texas, Ohio, Kansas, New Mexico, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan.
Salt is extracted from underground beds either by conventional mining or by solution mining. In solution mining water is used to bring salt to the surface in the form of brine. The brine is later evaporated leaving salt crystals behind.
Salt use and production throughout history
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 production of salt.
Salt had another quality that made it useful, it allowed the preservation of food like meat fish, or fruit which would otherwise easily 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.
Would you believe that in some areas of the world salt became so precious 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 the use of 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 has always been a major producer of salt 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 would have never been born. 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 slaves. The expression “not worth his salt” meant a slave 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 actually not true. What they received was 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 own 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 around the world. 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 very important. In many cultures salt is a weapon that can be used against evil beings or creatures.
Different types of salt
Salt is salt, right? Actually, no. There are different types of salts out there depending on where it comes from or how it is processed.
Also called refined salt, table salt is mostly just sodium chloride with anti-caking agents added. How is refined salt different from the other types of salt?
Refined salt usually comes from the brine forced up salt mines. Before the brine is made to undergo mechanical evaporation, it is often treated with chemicals to remove minerals ironically referred to as the “impurities” in the salt.
The evaporation process involves the use of high compression and heat which disrupts the molecular structure of the salt. Finally, almost all of the moisture is removed using a fluidized-bed dryer.
This is NOT the salt you want to consume. (And a big reason why restaurant food is not good for you is their use of other kinds of cheap, mass-produced salt like this.)
Are all sea salts equal?
And that's part of the fun.
Depending on where it was harvested and how it was processed, sea salt can contain varying trace amounts of zinc, potassium, and iron as well as unique flavors and colors.
There is a caveat when it comes to sea salt. Harvesting sea salt from polluted seas will get you polluted salt. Sometimes sea salt can contain traces of heavy metals like lead. So it's of paramount importance to know and trust your salt supplier.
Himalayan pink salt
It’s salt and it’s pink! This type of salt is mined deep under the Himalayan mountains in Pakistan. The color comes from the trace minerals prevalent in the salt.
This is our preferred all-purpose seasoning salt because it's one of the most mineral-dense salts on the planet!
Celtic sea salt
This salt is harvested from the Atlantic seawater off the coast of Brittany, France. The name comes from the Celtic technique used to gather the salt using wooden rakes and no metal implements whatsoever. This is to make sure to preserve the enzymes within the salt.
Usually it is served or sold as is and unrefined. Because it is unrefined, it contains dozens of beneficial live elements found in seawater. The drying process actually leaves a bit of water in the salt, making it moist to the feel.
Fleur de sel
Some call this the caviar of salts, it’s name literally means ‘flower of salt.’ It gets it’s name from the flower-like patterns of crystals in the salt crust.
Fleur de sel is a kind of sea salt, but unlike the way sea salt is commonly gathered by trapping and evaporating seawater, fleur de sel is collected from the surface of the sea where it forms as the seawater evaporates.
Fleur de sel can only be collected when it is very sunny, dry, and the winds are slow and steady. This is why it can only be produced in small quantities. Traditionally it was also the women who collected the salt because handling it required a very delicate touch.
It also takes quite some labor to gather the salt, another reason why it is the most expensive of salts. It’s normally not used for cooking, but rather as a “finishing salt” added before a dish is served.
Fleur de sel has been collected since ancient times, in fact it is mentioned in the book Natural History by Pliny the Elder.
Jewish tradition requires that before meat is eaten, all blood must be drawn from it using salt. Tradition also requires the use of a specific salt acceptable to their customs, and this is called kosher salt.
What makes kosher salt different from regular salt? The structure is different, kosher salt has larger flakes than regular salt. This makes it easier for those preparing food to pick them up with their fingers and spread them over the food.
Kosher salt has both a different texture and flavor from regular salt, but after it is allowed to dissolve or is mixed into food this difference in texture and flavor disappears, and it tastes and feels like regular salt.
Flaked sea salt
Often used to flavor steamed vegetables or shellfish, flaked sea salt is typically collected from England’s Essex coast.
The salt is described as being soft and having sheer, pyramid-like flakes. The taste is described as briny in flavor. This is also the fastest-dissolving type of salt.
It's one of our favorites for general purpose recipe finishing: Wild Kosher Flake Salt.
Salt is good for the body
Relieving sore throat
Who hasn’t experienced losing their voice or not being able to speak above a squeak? Sore throat, 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.
Sore throat can be relieved with the traditional remedy of salt and hot water. Gargle, spit, and repeat.
Help maintain dental hygiene
Salt isn’t only good for your throat, the rest of the mouth can benefit from it as well. Salt is a good, although painful way, to treat canker sores.
Salt can also be used to treat painful bacterial infections like trench 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 of salt mixed with 1 cup of warm water helps reduce swelling and soothe sore gums.
Did you know that salt can be used in place of toothpaste as well? Humans cleaned their teeth with salt during the pre-toothpaste days. However, you should also be careful how much salt you use for this purpose as too much salt can also be too abrasive and damage your teeth.
As a preventive oral hygiene measure, and also to 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.
As a source of iodine
Salt is a good way of introducing iodine into the body.
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 important when it comes to developing brain and bone structure, this is why expectant mothers and young children must maintain adequate iodine levels.
Providing energy and allowing muscle movement
The body actually doesn’t run on calories, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, it runs on salt. It is water and salt that regulates all the metabolic functions of the body.
Another reason salt is good for you is because the muscle tissue and neurons of the body are considered electric tissues as they are able to 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.
Electrolyte balance can be maintained by eating salt or consuming drinks with electrolytes.
Do you know what else runs on salt? Your thoughts. Without natural salt, you wouldn’t be able to produce thoughts, or translate those thoughts into words.
Relieving 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 be a factor in muscle cramping since the body normally 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.
Preventing and treating hyponatremia
The body needs the right amount of sodium to be able to maintain normal blood pressure and the smooth functioning of the nerves and muscles. When there is a shortage of sodium in the fluids outside the cells, this is called hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is caused by several conditions including over-hydration with water, perspiration, 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 for 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.
If not treated, hyponatremia can cause nausea, vomiting, and headaches at best. 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.
Treating 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 loss of water and salt.
Cystic fibrosis can be diagnosed by testing the salt content of perspiration. People suffering from cystic fibrosis lose more salt than normal when perspiring.
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 of the following symptoms for at least 12 weeks: nasal congestion, runny nose, pain or pressure in their face, and hyposmia (reduced sense of smell).
Some people may also suffer from nasal polyps, which are described as grape‐like swellings of the normal 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 with gravity‐based pressure using a vessel with a nasal spout. It can also be performed with low positive pressure from a spray, pump or even a squirt bottle, just make sure you know what you’re doing first.
Preventing heat stroke
Also called sun stroke, this 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. Normally, the body is designed to be able to release heat properly to cool the body down to normal temperatures. It does this by producing sweat through the sweat glands, the more heat it has to displace the more we perspire. When that happens we lose too much essential salt and water within a short period.
Heat stroke can happen to people who are outside in the sun and high temperatures for an extended period of time. Elderly people and small 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 who is suffering heat stroke should be administered fluids that contain sugar and salt.
Help deal with diabetes
Those with diabetes need high levels of insulin to maintain fitness. A low-salt diet can weaken the body’s sensitivity towards insulin. In turn, this reduces the body’s ability to metabolize glucose, causing insufficient levels of energy to the liver, muscles, and nervous system, possibly leading to Type 2 diabetes.
According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, having diabetes doesn’t mean you have to cut salt and sodium from your diet. However, people suffering from diabetes should watch their sodium intake since they are more likely to have high blood pressure than people who don’t suffer from diabetes.
As a rehydration treatment
Loss of water and salt through perspiration 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.
In times when no immediate medical treatment is available, doctors recommend a mix of water, sugar, and salt to immediately replace lost fluids.
For a good foot soak!
Salt isn’t just good for your insides, your outsides, particularly your feet, can benefit as well. To relieve pain or just feel good, an old home remedy calls for a foot soak in hot water mixed with salt. Is there more to this than just getting a 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 good for skin exfoliation because it removes dead skin cells. The warm water also improves blood flow to the skin which can promote healing.
Finally, soaking feet in warm or hot water just feels good! It’s relaxing, soothing, and reduces stress.
Salt Intake and Health
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 salt if you used too much!
There's a lot of nonsense research that was done in the past that many top government organizations cite to back their recommendations of what Americans should eat.
We won't go into dispelling all of these poorly backed recommendations, but know this: Salt is an essential nutrient to the human body, so much so that if you don't eat salt you will die!
The key when it comes to health and salt is the quality of the salt. You want real salt that comes from deep under the earth or from the sea. Sea salt and rock salts that are naturally harvested and with nothing added or any chemical processing whatsoever.
Then use as much salt as needed to make your food taste good! That's it!
Check out the full Wild Foods line of premium all-natural salts!