The marketing of sodium chloride should be taken with a pinch of salt

Sodium chloride is a very simple chemical and cannot decay. Excess is harmful though it is an essential part of our diet. These days many people seem to believe that some forms are better than others.

Years ago an idea developed that all white foods were bad: bread, sugar, milk, salt. Similarly it was held that all refined substances were bad: (because they were unnatural), while food additives were worse (though of course diet supplements do not count).

Table salt is white, it is refined, anti-caking agent is added to prevent clogging in damp weather, and a tiny amount of potassium or sodium iodide is added for health reasons. Thus it offends against a host of popular prejudices.

Many people’s diet is short of the essential element iodine, which is added to salt to prevent deficiency. In particular, without sufficient iodine, children’s brains will not develop properly and they suffer a form of mental retardation called ‘cretinism’. It has been claimed that non-iodised salt is better for preserving food (though I know of no scientific justification for this), so this is available in bulk packs.

In most countries salt is obtained from underground deposits, either by mining or by dissolving it in water. It is not generally extracted from seawater because this is so dilute that huge amounts of energy are needed to evaporate such large quantities of water. A dry climate at low latitudes allows solar energy to be used, but large areas are needed so land needs to be cheap.

These requirements are marginally met at Grassmere in the Awatere valley, Marlborough, where evaporation exceeds precipitation in nine months of the average year. A long-established solar salt industry is a prominent feature, visible to travellers between Picton and Christchurch. However the suitable area is limited and New Zealand has always imported salt.

Solar salt is of sufficient purity for most purposes but not all. Vacuum salt is more highly refined and is produced both at Grassmere and Mt Maunganui; the latter uses imported salt as feedstock.

A fad starting in Europe held that sea salt was healthier than other kinds, being ‘more natural’, and it was believed this came as large crystals. Fashionable restaurants provided salt grinders, which held large crystals of sodium chloride, rather than the old dispensers of fine crystals in a shaker. One advantage of sea salt, it was argued, was that it was ‘more salty’ and therefore healthier because less would be needed.

It is possible that relatively large crystal fragments have a more vigorous assault on the palate, however most salt is added in cooking, and in solution all salt is equally ‘salty’. Salt ions have no memory so do not know what size crystal they inhabited.

The underground deposits in Europe are remains of dried-up seas, so all their salt is ‘sea salt’; while in NZ the cheapest form of table salt is locally produced, and made directly from sea water. Furthermore it is not really ‘highly refined’.

It may be of concern that some parents refuse to use iodised salt, and so expose their children to a risk of iodine deficiency. It is claimed that in New Zealand, iodine intake has been dropping for twenty years. In the 1990s intakes twice fell below internationally recommended levels (NM 17th May Report quoting Elizabeth Aitken in NZ Dietetic Association Journal).The decreased use of iodised salt in our diet is to be deplored.

On Sale Now

I had a look at what is available in Nelson and the results were quite interesting. The cheapest salt available was Skellerup Marlborough in bulk packs at $0.80 per kg. It could be bought either iodised or non-iodised. Prices for similar quality in other brands ranged up to $1.00.

Salt in dispensers was naturally dearer because of the packaging; the price range was $2.10 – $3.60 per kg.

The dearest salt was Maldon Sea Salt from Essex, England, declared to be ‘Unrefined and Natural’. Various NZ writers on health and food have touted this as a superior product. It needs to be good, as the price was $38.75 per kg.

Other imported products were:

Celtic Sea Salt produced in Brittany and packaged by Lotus in Australia priced at $13.46 per kg. This claimed to be ‘Hand harvested and Unbleached’ (whatever that means). It consisted of large brownish crystals and was very sticky. The pack carried an analysis showing it to be only 83% sodium chloride with 7% water. Other elements (found in seawater) amounted to around 3% so what else the stuff contained we do not know.

Also available was Lotus Australian Sea Salt. This was only available as a fine grade; but a relative bargain at only $2.50 per kg.

Some small New Zealand firms were selling salt.

Solar Sea Salt was from Kaiora Organics, Napier and certified by Bio-Gro (organic salt is a splendid idea). These large crystals at $8.81 per kg were ‘unrefined, unwashed’.

A Nelson firm provided ‘Safe Earth Unprocessed Sea Salt, “The way Nature created it” Not altered, Not refined, No additives, Natural Minerals retained. Bio-Gro certificate currently being sought’.

They have a leaflet that is a mixture of good sense and outrageous claims. Stating that salt cannot be organic, but also; ‘unprocessed sea salt is a natural antihistamine’. In a health shop it was $18.00 per kg for both large crystals and normal grade. At a supermarket it was $15.88 per kg; still hardly a bargain.

Presumably for legal reasons the pamphlet refers to an overseas website rather than making direct claims – nevertheless under ‘Prevention and Cure’ it manages to refer to most human diseases except cancer, including such refractory problems as ‘Altzheimer, Multiple sclerosis, and Insulin Independent Diabetes’ (sic).

It also includes the delightful thought; ‘Without sufficient water to wet all parts equally, some parts of the body will not receive the vital elements that water supplies’.

Bargain price

Large crystals of Empire Rock Salt by Hansells NZ were at a bargain price ($1.25) in one supermarket. Apart from the claim ‘no additives’, there was no further information. Without labelling on the packet, this was of dubious legality.

The large companies are also in on the act and their products labelled ‘Sea Salt’ are much cheaper than those sold by the small companies; though more expensive than their own sea salt without the label. This is a truly wonderful way of adding value. Saxa and Cerebos have fine ‘Sea Salt’, not iodised but with added anti-cake which sells at a range of $1.20 – $1.55 per kg depending on the supermarket. This is generally around 20-35c more than their similar (possibly identical) product not labelled ‘Sea Salt’.

But in one Supermarket I found Cerebos Sea Salt as large crystals at $1.20 per kg. It is more expensive to produce large crystals so this is very reasonable. It makes ‘Maldon Sea Salt’, essentially the same product but 3000% dearer, look rather overpriced.

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