Shaking up the Salt Myth: The History of Salt

“In all ages salt has been invested with a significance far exceeding that inherent in its natural properties…Homer calls it a divine substance. Plato describes it as especially near to the gods, and we shall presently note the importance attached to it in religious ceremonies, covenants and magical charms. That this should have been so in all parts of the world and in all times shows that we are dealing with a general human tendency and not with any local custom circumstance or notion.” Ernest Jones, 1912

Salt has been the subject of controversy in recent years, and has increasingly been blamed for a number of poor health outcomes, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. (1) Salt is ubiquitous in our modern diet, with Americans consuming an average of 10 grams of salt per day. Of this amount, about 75% is derived from processed food; only about 20% is naturally occurring or from discretionary salt use, such as that added in cooking or at the table (the rest comes from sources such as water treatment and medications). (23) Most of what we read and hear about salt these days is telling us that salt consumption needs to be reduced, and it has even been referred to as “the single most harmful substance in the food supply”. (4)

However, until recently, salt had maintained an extremely high level of value for thousands of years of human history. As Mark Kurlansky explains in his book, A World History of Salt, “salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” (5) So how did we develop this insatiable taste for salt, and why is it that we now fear salt as being dangerous for health? And furthermore, what role does salt truly play in our health and wellbeing?

In this first part of my series on salt, I will cover the historical significance of salt and its role in the evolution of humanity.

The development of human civilization is intricately linked to the pursuit of salt: wild animals wore paths to salt licks, men followed these animals and built settlements near the salt deposits. (6) These settlements became cities and nations. The human obsession with salt has spanned thousands of years of human history, across many different contexts and continents. Nearly every society in existence has some level of salt use not only in their cuisine, but also in their medicine, their politics, their economies, and even their religious practices.

Kurlansky’s A World History of Salt (7) explains the incredible role that salt has played in the development of humanity over thousands of years. In Judaism and Christianity, salt is a symbol of the covenant between God and the ancient Hebrews. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans included salt in their sacrifices and offerings. Muslims believe that salt protects against the evil eye. During the Middle Ages, the spilling of salt was considered ominous, and the spiller had to cast a pinch over his left shoulder. (8)

As civilization and agriculture spread, salt became one of the first international commodities of trade, its production was one of the first industries, and a number of the greatest public works were motivated by the need to obtain salt. Salt trade routes traversed the globe, between Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Salt was often used as money, and was desperately coveted, hoarded, searched for, traded for, and even fought over.

Salt has even made its way into our language as a metaphor for value: hardworking people are known to be “worth their salt”, and the most worthy amongst us are known as “the salt of the earth”. The root word “sal-” is of Latin origin and refers to salt. Words that have been historically based on humanity’s high value for salt include “salubrious”, which means “health-giving”, and “salary”, which is derived from the Latin salarium, the money allotted to Roman soldiers for purchases of salt. (9)

“Salus” is the Roman goddess of health and prosperity. (10) Even the word “salad” originated from the Italian salata, as the Romans often ate dishes of assorted raw vegetables with a brined dressing, hence the name which is short for herba salata or “salted vegetables”. (11) Nearly four pages of the Oxford English Dictionary are taken up by references to salt, more than any other food. (12) Clearly, the high value placed on salt in many cultures around the world has greatly contributed to the developmental course of human history.

But what about human pre-history?

Despite the human taste and desire for salt, dietary salt intake was likely extremely low in Paleolithic times. There is no evidence that Paleolithic people engaged in salt extraction or sought out inland salt deposits, and the current estimate of Paleolithic intake is similar to that of chimpanzees. (13) Preagricultural humans are estimated to have consumed only 768 mg of sodium each day (about 1950 mg of salt), which is much lower than our current intake. (14) The mining, manufacture, and transportation of salt originated in the Neolithic Period, when agriculture was developed.

The question is, what drove Neolithic man to begin the inevitable search for salt? Not surprisingly, the move from a hunting-and-gathering diet to one consisting largely of grains and vegetables necessitated the procurement of supplemental dietary salt. (15) Humans, like many carnivores, can meet their salt needs by eating meat and seafood, provided they do not sweat excessively. (16) For example, the Masai, nomadic cattle herders in East Africa, can easily obtain adequate dietary salt by drinking the blood of their livestock. In modern and historic hunter-gatherer societies, it has generally been found that hunting tribes do not make or trade salt, unlike agricultural tribes, and once humans began cultivating crops, their dietary need for salt increased. (17)

Based on what we know about Paleolithic consumption of salt and how it compared to Neolithic and modern-day intake, where does this leave us in terms of our own salt consumption? Is it ideal to completely avoid salt and simply eat enough animal products to meet our needs? Or can added dietary salt play a role in optimal health and wellbeing, despite its theorized absence from the original Paleo diet?

In Part 2 of my series on salt, I will be discussing the physiological roles of salt in the human body, and what the evidence says (or doesn’t say) about our need for dietary salt.

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  1. says

    Close to where I live in Switzerland there is an underground salt mine – http://www.mines.ch/en/visits – the first gallery was dug in 1684 and it is still in production. The presentation (in 4 languages) is very interesting – you learn about the history of the salt trade, and you see how salt is extracted from rock and distilled into crystal salt. There is also a discussion of why it is so important to the human organism. If you’re ever near Montreux, I’d highly recommend a visit!

  2. says

    I wonder how much salt, by taste, most people would consume if the “complex,” “processed” foods were eliminated. I find most bacon too salty, and a little dash goes a long way in something like sweet potatoes or steak. However, I thoroughly enjoy some salty cheeses.

    The observation about agricultural tribes is interesting, since I believe salt/sodium retention increases with increased carbohydrate consumption.

    Also, I think I’ve seen that in rats, a “high salt diet” increases energy expenditure, t3, t4, and blood pressure, while decreasing TSH and angiotensin II.

    • Michael says

      Agree with the bacon. I don’t eat it often but when I do I find it so sickly by the end. just way too salty. almost like I regret eating it. I might eat it once every couple of months. However I don’t consume much salt so I may be more sensitive to it if it works like that.

      by not eating it often i mean except for salting a roast chicken I don’t add it to anything and don’t eat processed foods. i guess I’ll find out in part 2 if this is a good idea.

  3. deb b says

    Would be interested in comments regarding “land” salt mines vs. sea salt (somehow it seems like the land salt might have more chemicals used to process it). Trace minerals in both, it would seem. Sea salt might have more pollution?

  4. Karen says

    Is it true that some people do actually need more salt, those with adrenal fatigue for example? I crave it endlessly and, thanks to the beautiful fleur de sel I buy, add it to my home-cooked vegetables liberally. My blood pressure is typically on the low side, sometimes very low, which makes me wonder if I need it somehow.

  5. thom says

    > Humans, like many carnivores, can meet their salt needs by eating meat and seafood, provided they do not sweat excessively. (16)

    I was just wondering, can we look at the amount of salt paleolithic man ate and what we know about paleolithic life to determine how much exercise he was getting? Like how much he would have been able to sweat and work hard each day.

  6. Sam says

    I have heard some in the “Paleo” community lately express some fear of contaminated sea salt (Himalyan type I believe). I think arsenic and mercury were two things I remember hearing about. Maybe it’s not necessarily contaminated and these are just naturally occuring. I want to up my sea salt intake to help deal with adrenal fatigue but was a little nervous to do so because of this. I’m interested to hear Chris’s take on this.

  7. Alexandria says

    I went into a coma for two days due to low sodium during my time on a gluten-free, Paleo diet. So, regarding the question about adequate sodium from animal products alone, I would say…no.

  8. says

    Use salt liberally if your body craves it. It’s not the monster that modern media makes it out to be. In my opinion the best form of salt is pure canning and pickling salt.

  9. Lpjohnson says

    I would like a little clarification. When you say “salt” do you mean modern table salt (sodium chloride) or do you mean the natural form that would have been a commodity in pre-industrial times. It is my understanding that they have different chemical makeup. Thanks

  10. Rachel says

    Michael, I have never felt regret for eating bacon:) Bacon is one of my very favorite things.
    I can remember eating salt as a child and I’ve noticed my niece also does this. She generally requests the “special salt”,Celtic Sea salt, she likes the taste and texture.
    I do notice that after largely giving up processed boxed and packaged food over the last 4 years if I do eat it I can’t finish it. It’s just way too salty and sugary.

  11. john says

    Hey chris,

    do yo think this is a good form of coconut waer kefir to take for those who cant handle dairy??

    Also, about SIBO, have you heard of Dr Siebeckers work on it, and do you think her recomendations of a prokinetic like really low dose erythromycin to act as a stimulator of the cleansing wave/migrating motor complex a good idea?

  12. Herb says

    I can’t decide which is worse: the potential pollution in sea salt or the anti-caking agents in refined salt!? I can’t get pickling or koshering salt readily in the UK, and the rock salt I tried was full of grey bits and anticaking agents.

    Maybe it doesn’t matter and your new series can convince me to cut back on my salt, though increasing it has improved my night time micturation markedly.

  13. patty says

    A doctor told me to increase salt intake since I eat strict SCD, to increase low blood pressure and decrease heart palps. Sprinkling pink Himalayan or Real Salt a few times does improve these, but why? Is it increased fluid retention? What other chemcial/mineral interactions occur?

    And how about organ function… mild chronic kidney disease patients are put on low sodium diets. How does salt affect kidney function?

    Salt free and low salt diets must alter taste palates. Crab legs are horribly unpalatably salty to me whereas everyone else thought delicious! Is salt addictive, like sugar?

    • Alice says

      Hi Patty,

      Harmful effects of excess salt on body

      i. Salt is a stimulant: It is stimulant. It stimulates Sympathetic Nervous System and adrenal glands and creates stress arousal. That’s why it comes under the category of stress food.

      ii. High blood pressure: Excessive salt causes water retention in the body and increases the blood volume and cardiac output resulting into High Blood Pressure. Considerable fall in B.P. is observed with reduction in dietary salt intake in Hypertension.

      iii. Weakening of bones: Eating too much salt can pull calcium from the bones making them weak More calcium is also excreted in the urine with the ingestion of more table salt.

      iv. Effect on Kidneys: Excess salt puts a heavy burden on kidneys because they have to work harder to remove the excess salt. Hence they may gradually weaken. Kidneys can’t remove more than 4-5 gm of salt per day. Remaining salt not able to be excreted gives rise to undesirable ailments in the body.

      v. Increase in weight: Excess salt in the body increases the weight of the body because of the following reason. Kidneys eliminate excess salt from the body by filtering out the sodium that makes up part of the salt compound. In case kidneys work less efficiently either because they have gone weak or because of lowered blood supply to them (because of weak heart), the kidneys excrete sodium less efficiently and more sodium is retained in the body. Since the kidneys are geared to maintain a fixed proportion of sodium to water in the blood, excess salt in the body means excess water too and hence excess weight of the body.

      vi. Worsening of Oedema: Salt makes oedema worse and should be avoided in all oedematous states whether due to liver, kidney or endocrine diseases.

      vii. Hardening of arteries: Table salt is not completely soluble in water and tends to harden the arteries by its excessive use. For good health, that salt is required which is entirely soluble in water. High temperatures used for making table salt and elements like potassium chloride and sulphate and other chlorides tend to inhibit the dissolving of salt in water.

      viii. Salt increases uric acid: Excess of salt interferes with the elimination of certain wastes of the system like uric acid and therefore contributes indirectly to various diseases like gout etc.

      ix. Bronchial and Lung problems: Deficiency of organic sodium in table salt results in bronchial and lung problems because organic sodium is required for the elimination of CO2 from the system.

      x. Gastric cancer (Stomach cancer) is associated with high levels of sodium.

      xi. exercise-induced asthma. On the other hand, another source counters, “…we still don’t know whether salt contributes to asthma.

      Any so-called iodized salt has synthetic iodine added to it simply because the product is refined or processed. Plain and simple! The salt industry played a major role in goiters (enlargement of the thyroid gland, swelling of the neck) and underdevelopment (midgets). Midgets are the sad result of iodine deficiency in the mother. Females are very critical and important creatures. So much of other lives (babies) are dependent upon them.

      When refining natural sodium, iodine is naturally lost. However, the initial crude oil extract-based salt of the oil industry actually destroyed the thyroid gland, which is primarily comprised of iodine, and which regulates growth (as well as metabolism). So to help prevent iodine deficiency-related pathologies and abnormalities due to salt consumption, the salt industry started to iodize its salt. You see, there’s a reason for everything! However, this synthetic iodine is very poisonous! Synthetic anything is poisonous! So it’s wise to just shun synthetic chemicals.

      High concentrations of salt in the stomach appear to induce gene activity in the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori, making it more virulent and increasing the likelihood of an infected person developing a severe gastric disease.

      High Salt Diet Linked to Stomach Ulcers and Stomach Cancer.

      Salt has been found to increase the growth and action of H. pylori, thus increasing the risk of cancer. Salt may also act as an irritant/inflammatory agent of the stomach lining, which can expose it to carcinogens.

      The toxic refined salt causes inflammation. The refined salt builds up in your organs, muscles and tissues hardening your arteries and damaging your kidneys. Many researchers contend that one of the primary contributors to the increased number of Americans on kidney dialysis and the increase in the demand for organ transplants is directly related to the use of refined salt in fast food stores, packaged foods and on the family dinner table.

      Despite the fact that the average American consumes as much as five times the RDA of salt, sodium is still the number-one mineral deficiency. The reason is table salt (including iodized salt, a form of refined table salt with iodine added) is toxic and cannot be assimilated because of the body’s struggle to break down the added anti-caking agent ( sodium aluminosilicate, a man-made synthetic chemical) that causes an increase in blood pressure.

        • Samantha says

          Splitting hairs, even tho’ you are technically correct. The whole point was that table salt is potentially disastrous for our health, and that the synthesised rubbish it contains is equally destructive.

          Thankfully someone with passion spent some time enlightening us.

  14. Gregory L. Johnson says

    For me salt is a manual balancing act with potassium. I recently lost both adrenals and one kidney. I am steroid dependent, that is hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone. As a result I have to watch my potassium mainly due to the fixed amount of fludrocortisone which is a replacement for aldosterone. Aldosterone is how your body regulates potassium. It does this by holding salt in the kidney. Your kidney needs salt to release potassium. As a result when I eat high amounts of potassium I eat more salt. I could increase the fludrocortisone for my relatively high potassium diet (lots of fruits and vegetables) but then I would have to watch my salt. I like salt. I think I will stick with lower levels fludrocortisone. I like my olives, pickles, tamari, and cheeses. too much. Over the weekend I bought some feta with sun dried tomatoes and spicy pepper at the local farmer’s market…salty heaven!

    • Alice says

      Hi Gregory, sorry about your adrenal and kidney.

      Harmful effects of excess salt on body

      i. Salt is a stimulant: It is stimulant. It stimulates Sympathetic Nervous System and adrenal glands and creates stress arousal. That’s why it comes under the category of stress food.

      ii. High blood pressure: Excessive salt causes water retention in the body and increases the blood volume and cardiac output resulting into High Blood Pressure. Considerable fall in B.P. is observed with reduction in dietary salt intake in Hypertension.

      iii. Weakening of bones: Eating too much salt can pull calcium from the bones making them weak More calcium is also excreted in the urine with the ingestion of more table salt.

      iv. Effect on Kidneys: Excess salt puts a heavy burden on kidneys because they have to work harder to remove the excess salt. Hence they may gradually weaken. Kidneys can’t remove more than 4-5 gm of salt per day. Remaining salt not able to be excreted gives rise to undesirable ailments in the body.

      v. Increase in weight: Excess salt in the body increases the weight of the body because of the following reason. Kidneys eliminate excess salt from the body by filtering out the sodium that makes up part of the salt compound. In case kidneys work less efficiently either because they have gone weak or because of lowered blood supply to them (because of weak heart), the kidneys excrete sodium less efficiently and more sodium is retained in the body. Since the kidneys are geared to maintain a fixed proportion of sodium to water in the blood, excess salt in the body means excess water too and hence excess weight of the body.

      vi. Worsening of Oedema: Salt makes oedema worse and should be avoided in all oedematous states whether due to liver, kidney or endocrine diseases.

      vii. Hardening of arteries: Table salt is not completely soluble in water and tends to harden the arteries by its excessive use. For good health, that salt is required which is entirely soluble in water. High temperatures used for making table salt and elements like potassium chloride and sulphate and other chlorides tend to inhibit the dissolving of salt in water.

      viii. Salt increases uric acid: Excess of salt interferes with the elimination of certain wastes of the system like uric acid and therefore contributes indirectly to various diseases like gout etc.

      ix. Bronchial and Lung problems: Deficiency of organic sodium in table salt results in bronchial and lung problems because organic sodium is required for the elimination of CO2 from the system.

      x. Gastric cancer (Stomach cancer) is associated with high levels of sodium.

      xi. exercise-induced asthma. On the other hand, another source counters, “…we still don’t know whether salt contributes to asthma.

      Any so-called iodized salt has synthetic iodine added to it simply because the product is refined or processed. Plain and simple! The salt industry played a major role in goiters (enlargement of the thyroid gland, swelling of the neck) and underdevelopment (midgets). Midgets are the sad result of iodine deficiency in the mother. Females are very critical and important creatures. So much of other lives (babies) are dependent upon them.

      When refining natural sodium, iodine is naturally lost. However, the initial crude oil extract-based salt of the oil industry actually destroyed the thyroid gland, which is primarily comprised of iodine, and which regulates growth (as well as metabolism). So to help prevent iodine deficiency-related pathologies and abnormalities due to salt consumption, the salt industry started to iodize its salt. You see, there’s a reason for everything! However, this synthetic iodine is very poisonous! Synthetic anything is poisonous! So it’s wise to just shun synthetic chemicals.

      High concentrations of salt in the stomach appear to induce gene activity in the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori, making it more virulent and increasing the likelihood of an infected person developing a severe gastric disease.

      High Salt Diet Linked to Stomach Ulcers and Stomach Cancer.

      Salt has been found to increase the growth and action of H. pylori, thus increasing the risk of cancer. Salt may also act as an irritant/inflammatory agent of the stomach lining, which can expose it to carcinogens.

      The toxic refined salt causes inflammation. The refined salt builds up in your organs, muscles and tissues hardening your arteries and damaging your kidneys. Many researchers contend that one of the primary contributors to the increased number of Americans on kidney dialysis and the increase in the demand for organ transplants is directly related to the use of refined salt in fast food stores, packaged foods and on the family dinner table.

      Despite the fact that the average American consumes as much as five times the RDA of salt, sodium is still the number-one mineral deficiency. The reason is table salt (including iodized salt, a form of refined table salt with iodine added) is toxic and cannot be assimilated because of the body’s struggle to break down the added anti-caking agent ( sodium aluminosilicate, a man-made synthetic chemical) that causes an increase in blood pressure.

  15. Moises says

    I am very happy that beer contains salt.

    Is it the “good” kind of paleo salt that a caveman would eat before bashing in his cavemate’s head with a rock?

  16. says

    I would like to know about the physiological and chemical effects of salt in respect of the various conditions it is ascribed. I sweat a lot when exercising and I cramp if I do not take sufficient salt. Slow release magnesium helps keep me stable though.

  17. Alice says

    Harmful effects of excess salt on body

    i. Salt is a stimulant: It is stimulant. It stimulates Sympathetic Nervous System and adrenal glands and creates stress arousal. That’s why it comes under the category of stress food.

    ii. High blood pressure: Excessive salt causes water retention in the body and increases the blood volume and cardiac output resulting into High Blood Pressure. Considerable fall in B.P. is observed with reduction in dietary salt intake in Hypertension.

    iii. Weakening of bones: Eating too much salt can pull calcium from the bones making them weak More calcium is also excreted in the urine with the ingestion of more table salt.

    iv. Effect on Kidneys: Excess salt puts a heavy burden on kidneys because they have to work harder to remove the excess salt. Hence they may gradually weaken. Kidneys can’t remove more than 4-5 gm of salt per day. Remaining salt not able to be excreted gives rise to undesirable ailments in the body.

    v. Increase in weight: Excess salt in the body increases the weight of the body because of the following reason. Kidneys eliminate excess salt from the body by filtering out the sodium that makes up part of the salt compound. In case kidneys work less efficiently either because they have gone weak or because of lowered blood supply to them (because of weak heart), the kidneys excrete sodium less efficiently and more sodium is retained in the body. Since the kidneys are geared to maintain a fixed proportion of sodium to water in the blood, excess salt in the body means excess water too and hence excess weight of the body.

    vi. Worsening of Oedema: Salt makes oedema worse and should be avoided in all oedematous states whether due to liver, kidney or endocrine diseases.

    vii. Hardening of arteries: Table salt is not completely soluble in water and tends to harden the arteries by its excessive use. For good health, that salt is required which is entirely soluble in water. High temperatures used for making table salt and elements like potassium chloride and sulphate and other chlorides tend to inhibit the dissolving of salt in water.

    viii. Salt increases uric acid: Excess of salt interferes with the elimination of certain wastes of the system like uric acid and therefore contributes indirectly to various diseases like gout etc.

    ix. Bronchial and Lung problems: Deficiency of organic sodium in table salt results in bronchial and lung problems because organic sodium is required for the elimination of CO2 from the system.

    x. Gastric cancer (Stomach cancer) is associated with high levels of sodium.

    xi. exercise-induced asthma. On the other hand, another source counters, “…we still don’t know whether salt contributes to asthma.

    Any so-called iodized salt has synthetic iodine added to it simply because the product is refined or processed. Plain and simple! The salt industry played a major role in goiters (enlargement of the thyroid gland, swelling of the neck) and underdevelopment (midgets). Midgets are the sad result of iodine deficiency in the mother. Females are very critical and important creatures. So much of other lives (babies) are dependent upon them.

    When refining natural sodium, iodine is naturally lost. However, the initial crude oil extract-based salt of the oil industry actually destroyed the thyroid gland, which is primarily comprised of iodine, and which regulates growth (as well as metabolism). So to help prevent iodine deficiency-related pathologies and abnormalities due to salt consumption, the salt industry started to iodize its salt. You see, there’s a reason for everything! However, this synthetic iodine is very poisonous! Synthetic anything is poisonous! So it’s wise to just shun synthetic chemicals.

    High concentrations of salt in the stomach appear to induce gene activity in the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori, making it more virulent and increasing the likelihood of an infected person developing a severe gastric disease.

    High Salt Diet Linked to Stomach Ulcers and Stomach Cancer.

    Salt has been found to increase the growth and action of H. pylori, thus increasing the risk of cancer. Salt may also act as an irritant/inflammatory agent of the stomach lining, which can expose it to carcinogens.

    The toxic refined salt causes inflammation. The refined salt builds up in your organs, muscles and tissues hardening your arteries and damaging your kidneys. Many researchers contend that one of the primary contributors to the increased number of Americans on kidney dialysis and the increase in the demand for organ transplants is directly related to the use of refined salt in fast food stores, packaged foods and on the family dinner table.

    Despite the fact that the average American consumes as much as five times the RDA of salt, sodium is still the number-one mineral deficiency. The reason is table salt (including iodized salt, a form of refined table salt with iodine added) is toxic and cannot be assimilated because of the body’s struggle to break down the added anti-caking agent ( sodium aluminosilicate, a man-made synthetic chemical) that causes an increase in blood pressure.

    • Digit says

      @ Alice, Horse hockey x 3. That would be table salt you are spruking about… Eat Celtic sea salt and avoid those problems…

      • Samantha says

        Yes, Alice is talking about table salt, obviously because that is what 99% of the west is consuming and therefore the message is totally relevant.

        And if you want to recommend Celtic Sea salt, it’s best to remember it is virtually all Sodium Chloride.
        Not necessarily good for those with hypertension, or at the risk of getting it.

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