Most of us enjoy a variety of foods that contain lots of salt. These include processed meats, pizza, cheese, bread, potato chips, and fast foods. Salt adds flavor to foods and helps to preserve them. This is why many foods that you get at restaurants and grocery stores that are prepackaged or canned have so much salt in them.
Salt is essential for life. Salt is a mineral substance, primarily sodium chloride (NaCl). It’s produced by mining it from salt mines or by allowing water to evaporate in small pools, leaving the salt behind. It’s needed by our bodies to keep the fluid in our cells and to help transmit messages throughout the nervous system.
Too much salt in your body, however, causes your heart and blood to pump faster and harder to remove the extra salt that your body doesn't need. This makes your blood pressure too high over time, and can make you unhealthy.
Salt is also a natural disinfectant, which means it can kill germs. If you have ever had a sore throat, maybe you have gargled with salt water to soothe and heal it. Salt can also help wounds or sores heal on your body.
So we know we often crave salty foods, but what else do we know about salt? Here’s a little history.
Because many germs cannot live in salt, it has been used to preserve food since the earliest times. Its use as a food preservative helped large amounts of food to be stored, sent a long way, and eaten all through the year. This helped populations to grow, cities to develop, and soldiers in wars to be fed. Salt was probably used in Egypt as long ago as 4000 BC. In ancient times, salt was more valuable than it is now, because it was hard to get in many places, and could be used not only to give foods flavor, but also to make them last longer. It allowed food to be kept past its season, and taken on long trips.
People often traded salt for other things. It was of high value in Greece, China, Africa, and the Middle East. In the Mediterranean, including Ancient Rome, salt was even used for money. The word salary comes from the Latin word for salt, because they paid people in salt. After people learned how to get salt from the ocean, salt became cheaper. The Phoenicians were some of the first to figure out how to do this, by pouring seawater on dry land. Then when it dried, they collected the salt and sold it.
Another use of salt was in war, as a way to punish a city by ruining its crops. This is called "salting the Earth." The Assyrians are said to have been one of the first to have done this to their neighbors.
China and the US are the biggest producers of salt in the world, with about a third of the US production coming from salt mines. The rest is from the saltwater evaporation method. The largest salt mine in the world exists underneath Lake Huron.
Finally, table salt consists of tiny cubes, or crystals, tightly bound together through bonding of the sodium and chloride ions. Sodium chloride is available in several different particle sizes and forms, depending on what the intended end use is.
Different types of crystals also have different uses. You can see the crystals in rock salt used for de-icing. Fine granules are typical of what is used for table salt and even finer popcorn salt. Kosher salt, pickling salt, and ice cream salt are slightly coarser. Small compressed pellets are what is used in water softeners and large salt blocks are what is used as salt licks for livestock.
This month we feature the Quirkles® book Ronnie Rock and conduct the activity Ronnie Rock’s Crystals. Watch our video to learn more. And next time you reach for the lowly salt shaker, take time to appreciate salt!