The Salt of the Earth

November 17, 2015

I decided to write about salt for a couple of reasons. I adore salt and all it does for my cooking and health, but more important, I am asked about it all the time.


Salt has become a product category more than an ingredient in our modern foodie culture. From table salt to pink salt to Celtic and Mexican; Sicilian and Hawaiian; pink, black, grey, red and green salts; kosher salt, fine or coarse crystals.


It’s exhausting, right?


Because I love you and want your lives to be healthy and simple, I decided to dig in and give you the skinny on salt. Then you can decide what you want in your pantry.


The history of salt is interesting and long, so I’ll give you the short version so we can get to the meat of this article: why we need salt in our diet. 


As far back as 6050 BC, salt has been an important part of world history. Woven into the daily lives of countless civilizations, salt has been used as part of religious offerings, as valuable trade, even as currency. The word “salary” was derived from the word “salt.” Salt was so valuable in ancient times that it was legally regulated.


The word “salad” is derived from the word “salt,” as ancient Romans salted their leafy greens and vegetables to ease digestion and improve flavor. 


There are more than thirty references to salt in the Bible, including the famous phrase, “salt of the earth.”


Salt production folds into much of the history of the United Kingdom. Venice rose to economic greatness because of its monopoly on salt making. Salt making held such prominence in Salzburg, Austria that their four mines are now tourist attractions.


From the American Revolution (with local heroes making salt when the British denied it to the settlers) to the Lewis & Clark expedition, to the Civil War (during which the Union forces fought a 36-hour battle to capture Saltville VA, a salt processing plant believed to sustain the Confederate forces), salt has played a key role in our history as well.   


The essential nature of salt has led to its use as a political pawn over the centuries, including government monopoly and special taxes. In short, the mild-mannered, white granular substance we know today as “salt” has been so essential to all life throughout human history, as to be of the utmost value. We are fortunate, indeed, that the United States has never been subjected to discriminatory taxes, and that in North America, salt is plentiful and one of the most easily-obtained and least expensive of our necessities.


Used by governments to hold sway over people, salt can lose its importance in health and wellness. It is an essential element in the diet of not only humans but of animals, and many plants. It is one of the most effective and most widely used of all food preservatives (even used to preserve Egyptian mummies). Its uses are almost without number, from industry to pharmaceuticals. Salt seems to generate great interest currently as well as historically from social and health standpoints.


Is salt necessary for health? What kind of salt should we use? 


According to the Mayo Clinic, the most notable differences between sea salt and table salt are in taste, texture and processing (the biggest factor, in my view).


Sea salt is the result of evaporating sea water (or water from saltwater lakes) and usually involves very little processing. This natural simplicity leaves behind trace minerals and elements, adding color and flavor to the sea salt, which also comes in a variety of levels of coarseness.


Table salt, on the other hand, is typically mined from underground salt deposits and is more heavily processed to eliminate minerals and often contains additives to prevent clumping. Iodine is often added to table salt as well, which can help maintain thyroid health.


We are told that both salts are similar nutritionally, but are they really? What role does the processing play in the impact of salt on human health?


Sea salt has a “sweeter” flavor than table salt as a result of its natural mineral content and because it doesn’t contain any additives which can result in a bitter aftertaste common to table salt. A source of at least 80 essential minerals, including magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium, sulfur, iron, copper and more, sea salt gives us a lot of bang for our nutritional buck.


Table salt is made of 97.5% sodium chloride because it has been refined to remove other nutrients. While sea salt contains about 2% less sodium than table salt, that’s not to say it’s not a healthier option… or that it can’t help reduce our sodium intake. 


Technically speaking, salt should be denoted as a toxic metal, as it’s a combination of an easily combustible metal (sodium) and a poisonous gas (chlorine) like that used in swimming pools. Combining these two elements gives us salt as we know it: NaCl, consisting of 40% sodium and 60% chlorine. 


Sodium serves as both an electrolyte and a mineral and is necessary for transporting oxygen, nutrients and nerve impulses through our bodies. It plays a huge role in muscle movement, so your heart wouldn’t beat without it. Chlorine is necessary for both respiration and digestion.


In the end, we can’t live without salt, but yet, it has become the villain in the scenario of cardiovascular, liver and kidney disease, as well as high blood pressure. 


Table salt, particularly as found in large volume in processed foods, has earned the bad rap it gets with most conventional medical professionals – thoise whoconsider it to be a source of high blood pressure and other health concerns. However, lumping sea salt in with table salt is a mistake in my view, and not just mine. In holistic health circles, the taboo on salt is being questioned as sea salt is lauded as essential to good health.


Here’s where I diverge from conventional thinking about salt use. Experts tell us that since there’s a minuscule difference in sea salt and table salt when it comes to sodium chloride, that’s the final judgment. But in truth, the processing of salt is key to whether it’s healthful or not. 


Commercial table salt is toxic, lacking in the nutrients contained in refined, pure, raw sea salt. The refining and bleaching, and the use of  aluminum  in its  processing  results in toxicity to our brain cells.


Because our livers do not recognize unnatural chemicals and thus have difficulty processing them, digestion and metabolism become imbalanced and the toxicity can build up internally when we consume table salt.


Our blood salt content closely resembles sea water salt content. 


What really makes sea salt better? Besides better flavor than table salt, sea salt is said to:


* Help stabilize and regulate heartbeats (thank you, magnesium and sodium)

* Be essential for proper muscular function

* Help minimize the effects of stress by maintaining proper melatonin, serotonin, and tryptamine levels in the brain

* Help the body hold water efficiently for proper cell hydration

* Help minimize cellular acidity, especially in the brain and kidneys, making it an alkalizing agent

* Boost immune function

* Absorb into bone matter as a bone-strengthening compound so it can help prevent osteoporosis

* Provide a buffer for blood sugar levels, helping prevent or manage diabetes

* Provide iodine in a natural setting (not as an additive), making it easier for your thyroid to absorb it and regulate endocrine function


It gets better with sea salt; its benefits include good skin care, improved dental health, relief from rheumatoid arthritis, muscle cramps and psoriasis. It can provide relief from acne and respiratory problems. It plays a key role in maintaining our essential acid-alkaline ratio. Sea salt can provide relief from general body fatigue and promote better sleep. 




In the end, sea salt is a source of sodium and should be consumed in appropriate quantities, and only in cooking. Those cute little salt shakers on your table have no place in healthy dining. In cooking, the salt is better distributed through the dish, thus doing its job more effectively. Its job? To tenderize protein and fiber, to draw moisture and flavor to the surface of  foods and to magnify the taste of a dish. It’s easier to balance flavors if you cook with salt because it removes bitter flavors, enhancing both the sweet and savory qualities of any food. Salt is said to intensify the natural aromas of food so they taste better, since we taste with our sense of smell before we actually eat. Salt added at the table becomes the dominant flavor, not blending with other ingredients, leaving you with a salty aftertaste. (This might be great news for chips, but not in our day-to-day cooking.) 


Most importantly, cooking salt into a dish allows you to use less because a little goes a long way in enhancing flavor.


The use of salt is personal and driven by your overall health and wellness. It is an ancient food used to keep humans strong and vital since practically the dawn of time. It’s not a villain in our quest for wellness. Once again, it’s not the salt itself that is the problem; it’s the fact that we use too much of poor quality and consume it in processed food, which brings a whole host of demons to our door.