Table of Contents
A valuable commodity
Salt has been a prized mineral since time immemorial. It is often said that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, from which originates our modern word ‘salary’ and the phase ‘any man worth his salt’. In actual fact salary refers to the money the soldiers were paid, with which to buy their salt. But it still shows what an expensive and important commodity it was in those days.
Salt was very important for a number of reasons, but from a food perspective it was revolutionary. Not only did it enhance the flavor of food, but more importantly enabled food to be preserved. In the days before refrigeration this was tremendously useful.
It enabled food, when plentiful, to be stored for use later when it was scarcer, and protected people from eating spoiled or rotten food. It also meant that food could be transported and traded around the world, as well as sustaining the crews of ships spending months at sea.
Not so prized but still needed
Nowadays it might not seem so revolutionary or precious but we still have a need for it. Although we’re told to watch our salt intake, it is essential that we do have some salt in our diet.
But there is a bewildering array of different salts available, all making different claims. So what are the differences and are any of them healthier for us than others?
Do we need to use salt?
Much of our food already contains salt – and not just the obvious ones like potato chips and salted nuts. Natural foods like cheese are a good source of salt and many processed foods contain it. So we probably don’t need to add salt – at the table or in cooking. But need aside, it is a fantastic flavor-enhancer, bringing out the flavor of many foods and improving the palatability of others.
Not all salt is the same
Before the commercialization of salt production, it was obtained from all manner of natural sources. These were as diverse as dried marine algae, seawater soaked peat (which was dried and then burned to produce salty-tasting ash), dried fish eggs as well as fermented fish blood and organs! As you can imagine, these salty flavor-enhancers contained a lot more than just sodium chloride, the main constituent of salt.
Depending on their source, these ‘naturally’ derived salts contained other minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium, sulfur and potassium, many of which are essential to health.
Even today, most salt is sourced ultimately from the sea, but there is still great variation in the mineral content of different commercially-available salts.