A salty question

Not all salt is created equal. In this post I investigate the myriad kinds of salt and what makes them different. I started researching because I wanted to know what salt is best – both from a “foodie” point of view, and also from a health point of view. I also wanted to find out what salt is produced in New Zealand.
In my local organic grocery shop, Village Organics in Frankton, there’s a big display case with at least 15 different kinds of salt. In the last five years the range has been expanding. There’s celtic salt, macrobiotic salt, sea salt, organic sea salt, kosher salt and pink and grey/black Himalayan salts. In supermarkets there’s table salt, iodised and non-iodised; pickling salt; sea salt; and pink Himalayan salt.

Salt is essential to good cooking and eating. If you can’t use salt, food loses its zing. A well designed antipasto or hors d’oeuvre platter has a careful balance of flavours and textures, including salt. Think olives, feta or anchovies.

Foodie salt

Food writers and chefs tend to recommend good quality sea salt. Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are fans of Maldon salt. This is traditionally produced from salt beds in Essex, on England’s east coast. It’s expensive and hard to find – you could order it online. Hugh also recommends Cornish sea salt.

Another traditional European salt, that’s easier to obtain in New Zealand, is celtic salt, which comes from brine marshes in Normandy. It’s a grayish colour and has a damp texture because it includes small amounts of vegetable matter. Because of this, celtic salt contains iodine and lots of other trace elements. It’s also called sel gris, which is French for “grey salt”.

Australian sea salt producers Olsson’s make a raw macrobiotic salt, which they say is similar to celtic salt. Olsson’s products can be ordered online. There isn’t a New Zealand-made equivalent. I think this is a gap in the market – a high quality “foodie” sea salt, produced in New Zealand, could have huge potential as a global export.

The five flavours

In traditional Chinese medicine salt is regarded as one of the five important flavours – the others being sweet, sour, bitter and pungent. (Traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine has one more flavour: astringent.) The aim is to balance the flavours (and health) according to individual requirements. Craving a particular flavour is a sign of imbalance in the body.

American herbalist Rosalee de la Foret in her ebook The Taste of Herbs says therapeutically, salty flavours can promote digestion, moisten the body, act as a laxative, remove stiffness, and dissolve cysts. Rosalee says a salty taste comes from several minerals together – not just from sodium. This makes sense to me – it explains why better quality salt tastes more interesting than basic table salt. It contains more minerals.

Salt in my kitchen

My rule of thumb with salt, as with food in general, is to use it as much as possible in its natural form, and/or traditionally processed. For general cooking and table use I alternate between sea salt, Himalayan salt and celtic salt, which is my favourite. There’s a shaker of iodised table salt in the cupboard, and I don’t stop anyone from using it. The only salt product I’ve bought and don’t use is the black Himalayan salt, Kala Namak, which is too sulphurous for my taste, although it’s a popular condiment in Southeast Asia.

I usually add salt during cooking, rather than cooking without salt and letting people add their own. (But I don’t add salt to steamed or sautéed green vegetables, because my understanding is that it causes the nutrients to escape.) A small quantity of salt balances the flavours of a multi-ingredient dish, and a little goes a long way. Celtic and Himalayan salts are richer in flavour than refined sodium chloride. This means I don’t need to add as much when cooking. I provide salt on the table, but it’s not often used.

My late stepfather, Terry O’Meara MD, reckoned fancy salt didn’t taste as strong as standard table salt. (He had a similar preference for white sugar over less refined sweetening.) Terry and my mother, Sue, were fond of dredging table salt over their food, no matter how much salt had been used in cooking. I think their taste buds were just used to sodium chloride without the extra minerals.

Most processed food contains a lot of salt – check the ingredients label. We mainly cook from scratch in my household, so we know how much salt we’re getting, and what kind.

Salt and pickles

For traditional pickling and fermenting food we use natural sea salt. My son Tom, who’s the household sauerkraut specialist, says ordinary white sea salt from the supermarket is fine. (Here’s a link to his sauerkraut recipe.) The sauerkraut organisms don’t work well with the additives in iodised table salt.

“Pickling salt” is processed table salt, without iodine or anti-caking agents. Pickles will go cloudy with the additives in table salt, even if you’re not doing traditional fermentation.

Salt plus kelp

Some of the packaged salt in health food stores combines salt and kelp. New Zealand herbalist Malcolm Harker makes a sea salt plus kelp product, which is a great way to make sure you’re getting iodine and other trace elements.

I prefer to include sea vegetables in my recipes, rather than adding kelp powder as an afterthought. (I’m currently working on an article about ways to enjoy eating seaweed.)

Ohope

There’s no shortage of seawater in New Zealand.

New Zealand sea salt

Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater, rather than mining salt out of the ground.

The only New Zealand sea salt producer I know of is Dominion Salt, based at Lake Grassmere in the Marlborough Sounds. The piles of salt can be seen from the Blenheim-Christchurch highway. Dominion Salt produce sea salt for domestic use, but most of their production is used in industry, including food, agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc. They have a salt refinery at Mt Maunganui.

The Dominion table salt brands are Pacific Natural sea salt, Pacific Harvest sea salt, and Marlborough Flaky sea salt. They’re sold at specialist organic food shops and online.

Dominion’s sea salt is made by evaporating sea water using sun and wind, in a series of evaporation ponds. The salt is also washed. It’s a six month process starting in October, and it’s highly dependent on the weather. On the company’s website it says there was nil salt production in 1986 because of high rainfall.

Seawater contains iodine – but sea salt doesn’t. The iodine evaporates out during the drying process. However sea salt does contain more minerals than basic table salt, including calcium and magnesium.

I’ve seen suggestions that sea salt may be contaminated by pollution. But I haven’t found any research to back this up. I suspect this idea may be being pushed by the marketers of Himalayan salt.

Most sea salt sold in New Zealand comes from overseas – check the label.

Himalayan salt

This is being hyped big-time as a natural health product. Himalayan salt doesn’t actually come from the Himalayas – it’s from salt mines in the foothills in the Punjab. (Great name, though.)

Himalayan salt can be found at supermarkets and bulk stores as well as my local herbal shop and Village Organics. Medical herbalist Wendy Illing of The Herbal Shop and Clinic told me she recommends Himalayan salt to her clients. She referred me to Dr Joseph Mercola, who’s a respected source for holistic health information online. Dr Mercola is so enthusiastic about Himalayan salt that he sells his own brand.

I’ve seen spectral analysis results showing that Himalayan salt contains 84 minerals and trace elements. I’m willing to trust Wendy’s professional advice that it’s a good product. Besides, Himalayan salt tastes great.

I suspect some brands of Himalayan salt might be better quality than others, but I can’t find any evidence to back this. I’ve checked the packages for the list of ingredients, and even the cheapest brands claim to be “pure, unrefined and free from chemicals, additives and anti-caking agents”. There’s quite a price range. Last week the supermarket was selling Himalayan salt on special for $2.99 per kg.

I’d also like to know more about the mining methods. It’s unlikely that something this dirt cheap is being mined sustainably and ethically. But I would be happy to be proved wrong on this.

Himalayan salt

Pink Himalayan salt: it tastes great and looks pretty.

 

Table salt

Table salt sold in supermarkets is a highly processed product – sodium chloride plus additives. It’s the equivalent of white sugar and white flour.

Most of the table salt in New Zealand is probably from salt mines in India or China. (There’s no country of origin label on the bag.) Wikipedia says the four leading salt producers worldwide are China, the USA, India and Germany. They account for half the world’s salt production. Basic table salt has been mined out of the ground and refined, using chemical and high-temperature processes, to remove all the other minerals and trace elements and make it bright white. Anti-caking agents are added so that the salt stays dry and flows easily from a shaker. Most table salt also has iodine added. This gives it a purple colour, which then has to be chemically bleached out. There are big concerns about the impact of these additions on human health, which are beyond the scope of this article. (See later in this article for why iodine is added to table salt.) Kosher salt is refined salt, in big crystals. It usually has anti-caking agents added, but not iodine.

Traditional salt producers

Before salt became a product of big industry, it was produced in small quantities locally all over the world, by evaporating seawater, by mining, or by evaporating water from inland salt lakes and springs.

A lasting memory of my childhood in the New Guinea highlands was the day we visited a place in the remote Kaironk Valley, where salt was traditionally produced.

salt spring in the Kaironk Valley

The salt spring in the Kaironk Valley in 1973: it looked like a small, murky pool. Photos taken by my mother, Susan Bulmer.

There was a mineral spring and shallow clay tubs where the water was evaporated out into a sludgy sulphury grey salt, using the sun and also some heat from fires under the tubs.

traditional salt producing in the Kaironk Valley

Clay tubs where the salt was evaporated from the water.

Traditional salt making in the Kaironk Valley

The salt making place wasn’t in use when we visited. The people in the photo were our hosts.

I remember my father saying that because refined table salt had become a popular trade item, the local people would soon stop making salt, if they hadn’t already. But, he explained, this would mean they’d miss out on some of the other minerals and trace elements in the traditionally made salt.

I didn’t get to taste the Kaironk salt. My parents were good modernist scientists – they used iodised table salt.

Cooking with seawater

Many traditional coastal cultures use seawater in cooking, which presumably means they regularly consume some of the minerals from seawater. In Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean, seawater is packaged for sale to foodies, and prominent chefs recommend ways to use it. (Here’s a link to a Guardian article about cooking with seawater.)

I haven’t yet tried this. Here are some points to consider when experimenting with seawater in the kitchen: 1. Seawater has a higher concentration of salt than you’d usually use in cooking. A suggested ratio is one part seawater to two parts fresh. More is not better. 2. Seawater has a somewhat briny taste, so it’s most suitable for “fishy” recipes. 3. The seawater should come from a clean place.

Here’s yet another great New Zealand export product, that we’ll never run out of!

Some footnotes on salt and health

Too much salt?

Many of the older members of my family think too much salt causes high blood pressure. (Though this doesn’t stop most of them consuming salt.) Actually, medical opinion on this is pretty divided, and recent research doesn’t pinpoint salt as the causal factor. Here’s a link to a Time article about this. Sally Fallon points out in Nourishing Traditions that most research doesn’t differentiate between highly refined table salt and the traditionally produced salts that our forebears used.

Salt and iodine

Adding iodine to salt is a public health measure dating back to the 1920s. In the early 20th century people in some specific areas worldwide were suffering from chronic iodine deficiency, resulting in terrible health problems including hugely swollen thyroid glands (goiter) and mental retardation. Public health officials internationally (starting in Switzerland) decided that adding iodine to salt was the best way to deliver iodine supplementations to the general population. (In some places the public health system adds other things to table salt, including fluoride, iron and anti-parasite drugs.)

A few years ago I got a shock when a doctor pointed out I had a slightly swollen thyroid or goiter. “Do you use iodised salt?” he said. Well, yes, I replied. But I’d been raised to believe that a goiter is the sign of terrible iodine deficiency! I went for a scan and learned that my swollen thyroid wasn’t anything that the medical system could or wanted to do anything about. And then I asked around and found that slightly swollen thyroid glands are so common as to be almost normal for women of my age. But it was an indication that my body was out of balance.

Consuming iodised salt didn’t prevent me from developing a swollen thyroid. (And eating meat regularly didn’t ensure I had good iron levels when I was a mother of young babies.)

Many of us are out of balance with the minerals in our bodies, and taking one specific mineral almost certainly won’t solve this – the problem is much more complex. Also, there’s an increasing body of evidence suggesting that iodised salt actually stresses the thyroid and contributes to autoimmune disease.

Some links

Dominion Salt www.dominionsalt.co.nz

Village Organics https://www.facebook.com/villageorganicshamilton/

The Herbal Shop and Clinic www.herbalshop.co.nz

Malcolm Harker www.harkerherbals.com

Olsson’s salt www.olssons.com.au