The Brief History of Salt

by Eliza Ward

Salt is kinda important to us as humans. In fact, we humans cannot exist without it. “Salt” is a mineral (or a set of minerals) we must eat directly – meaning we cannot manufacture "salt" or other minerals in our bodies like we do certain enymes and proteins. Besides consuming "salt" directly, the only other way to get "salt" into our bodies is to consume the flesh from an animal that has eaten or lived in it – like fish - or consume plants that have absorbed and retained minerals from their surroundings, like the much touted coconut water from coconuts that have been grown in the mineral-rich sands of tropical beaches where there is, not surprisingly, lots of "salt".

The fact that we need salt is why, in the olden days, it was so valuable. In fact, salt was so precious it was used as a form of currency. Many wars were won and lost, and many kingdoms built and broken, over salt. Every community worldwide, if they wanted to be viable and thrive, needed a source of salt. As a result, there were literally tens of thousands of natural salt works worldwide of all different shapes and sizes to service our human needs.

But, with the advent of the industrial revolution and the advent of more advanced technologies and types of transportation came the advent of industrialized salt making (read: Morton’s) of the late 1800’s. As salt prices dropped, salt-makers worldwide started to have a very hard time selling their salt for sustainable prices, and natural salt-making operations, which were slow and required large amount of hand labor, started to go out of business. Salt, which was at one time considered as valuable as gold and was literally the “staff of life” (except for Wheat – which was literally the “staff of life”) for all of human existence, suddenly became a cheap and common commodity – all over the course of less than a hundred years.

The French Know How to Do it Right

For centuries French salt makers were known the world over for producing the best tasting sea salt. During its heyday, the French salt makers in and around Brittany employed over 900 salt workers and produced over 208 thousand metric tons of salt annually – over half of all the French sea salt produced every year. But once the industrialization of salt making started to take hold, those numbers quickly declined and, by 1947, their salt production had fallen to under 90 thousand metric tons per year – less than half its peak production before the industrial revolution. And, by 1987, the nadir of artisan salt production in western France, production had fallen to its all-time low of about 7 thousand metric tons per year – or just a little over 3% of its peak production amount.

Additionally, over that same time period, that same sad story was playing out in small salt-producing communities all over the world. This was despite the ever-growing demand for salt by the chemical industry worldwide. Wealthier nations quickly invested in larger salt works and transitioned to industrialized salt making as fast as possible, shutting down their traditional, smaller and artisanal salt works and investing in the corporate salt production “machine”. Ultimately, in the span of less than 100 years, literally tens of thousands of small salt makers went out of business, killing small salt communities in their wake, and killing their salt-making knowledge and history and experience (and our health) along with them.

The Rise of the Salt Industry

Ironically, while natural salt production was declining, the demand and uses of “pure salt” (i.e. pure Sodium Chloride) by chemical and industrial food production companies were rapidly increasing. In fact, the need for “pure” sodium chloride was one of the main factors driving industrialization and mechanical production. While some of the salt produced was used in foods, most of it was actually purchased and used outside of food production. In fact, only about 3% of the world’s production of salt is used in food today.

The biggest consumer of salt is the chemical industry – an industry that demands 100% pure sodium chloride. What many people do not know is that Morton Salt, like most other industrial salt companies, is actually owned by a fertilizer chemical company. Not too long ago, K+S (which is based in China,) purchased Morton from Dow Chemical, to become the biggest salt manufacturer in the world.

Of course, industrial salt is also consumed as food. But, most of the salt that is used in food is purchased by large packaged product companies – also an industry that has traditional required pure sodium chloride. To the chemical industry and corporate food companies, all that other lovely stuff you find in natural sea salt – like potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium carbonate, sulfur, and other trace minerals – are considered contaminants and they don’t want them in there – at all. The advent of industrial sea salt production techniques helps provide a more “pure” sea salt (usually about 99.9% sodium chloride) – but soon factory-made salt would make its debut, and change the salt world forever.

The Modern Renaissance of Artisan Sea Salt

So, today natural salt producers that focus on culinary sea salts, once the mainstay of the salt trade, are few and far between. But, over the last twenty years the world of natural sea salt has been changing. Sparked by the revival of the traditional salt works of Guerande, France, in 1987 and the general shift towards more natural and real foods, artisan salt are making an amazing 30-year come-back – which is great news. Great news not just because we like to support artisan food producers, wherever they happen to live, but great news because so many types and varieties of hand-crafted sea salts are literally being brought back from extinction every year and being made available to us. It’s also great news because natural sea salt is healthier for us humans than industrial salts – big surprise!

See next article: The Nutritional Dealth of Sea Salt

See prior article: The Basics of Salt - Salt 101

 

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