Where does our salt come from?
Salt – it is something we use and consume every day - but let me ask, do you know where it comes from and how it is made? Most people do not or if they do, it typically is a brief understanding and focuses on one type of salt – like sea salt. Join me over the next few blog posts as we dive into what is salt, how it is made, what salt is best, and how it effects our bodies. In this post, I will be talking about how salt is made and the different types of salt processing that help to make up the hundreds of types of salt found across the globe.
But first, let me ask you a question, what type of salt do you have in your pantry at this moment? Let me guess, most Americans will either have Morton salt, Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, or a store’s generic brand name. Some might have pink Himalayan salt due to its increase popularity in the late 2000s for its pink hue and “health claims.” But do you know anything about these salts, such as how they are made and if one is better than the other? What about sustainability practices or if this salt was made in an environmentally friendly way. Or did you buy them because your parents used those brands, they are easily accessible, or because they were simply “cheap?” Whether the reason, have you ever asked yourself why this salt? Well, lets take a journey down what is salt and how salt is made, and how that might affect prices, quality, and overall supply and demand.
Salt – and the 4 main processing methods
Here we go!
Salt in its basic form is a chemical compound of sodium and chloride, otherwise known as NaCl or as the mineral - halite. Salt is a naturally occurring mineral essential for life and is the only rock humans eat! Yes, salt is a rock. Natural occurring salt is found all over the world. In its purest form salt is a white crystal, but salt can be many other colors because of added trace minerals that are found in natural occurring salt as a result of its environment, or because of how salt is made.
How many kinds of salt are there? Since salt is found all over the world there are hundreds of different kinds, this is because of factors like its environment, where it is found, and how it is processed. However, these hundreds of salts can mostly be placed into 4 main different processing categories that classified them into sea salt, rock salt, inland/desert salt, and table salt. It should be noted that these 4 methods are not the only ways to make salt both historically and present day. Salt can be extracted and/or made from other ways such as plant ash, bamboo processing, and even animal fecal matter, but for today’s blog we will focus on the 4 main processing methods commonly used to make salt.
Let’s take a dive into each….
Sea salt aka seawater evaporation process: this particular salt comes from - you guessed it - the sea/ocean! Sea salt is produced in several ways that can take a few weeks to a few years to make. Prior to the creation of manufacturing equipment that uses a heat source like fire, gas, and electricity, to help move the evaporation process along faster, most sea salt was pumped into evaporation ponds. These interconnective gravity-fed ponds allow the brine to circulate and with each transfer making the brine (salt water) increase in salinity until it is ready to harvest and go through a final drying process to create salt. Today, sea salt is pumped into made-made ponds or containers that use a heat source to aid in the drying process leaving behind sea salt. Some regions of the world still use the traditional gravity-fed ponds allowing the sun to be their heat source for evaporation, also known as solar evaporation.
There is historical evidence that ponds were not the only process used to make sea salt. Pottery vessels that held sea water were heated over fire to evaporate the liquid leaving behind sea salt. In order for it to be sea salt, the brine must come from the ocean to create the salt. How it is process will vary depending on region and historical time period.
An unfortunate fact about sea salt is in recent years due to human pollution, micro plastics have been found creating issues with quality assurance and costing more time and effort to get rid of the micro plastics during the evaporation process. This is important to understand when buying quality sea salt and why it is important that we protect our oceans.
Solution Mining: Solution mining is where most of our table salt comes from. This process of extracting salt is by injecting a solvent, in most cases water, into a man-made hole that was drilled into an underground salt bed or dome. Once extracted the brine goes through a drying process, typically in manufacturing chemical plants using a man-made heat source to get salt. It should be noted that table salt is stripped of all its trace minerals and is left with just sodium chloride. Some salt companies add iodine and fluoride, in addition to anti-caking agents. I will talk more about table salt in a future post. This salt is classified as “man-made.”
FUN FACT about solution mining!
Salt beds or domes can deform rock units into traps that contain oil and natural gas. These salt sites are also important for underground storage or disposal of hazardous waste. These sites are often fought over by oil and salt companies since typically one can only be extracted as damage to the other resource can occur. In fact, on November 20,1980 on the Lake Peigneur, Louisiana’s deepest lake, the largest manmade whirlpool and tallest waterfall in the sate were created when an oil drill collided with a salt dome. Instead of hitting oil, the Texaco drill hit salt and pierced a hole creating a massive whirlpool that swallowed the entire lake and drill into a salt mine. At that time, more than 50 miners were 200 feet underground. Thankfully an alarm was immediately sounded and all the miners of the salt mine made it to safety. But the salt mine was destroyed and the fresh water lake was eventually refilled by the Gulf of Mexico.
Rock Salt mining: rock salt is found in mines of dried-up ancient sea beds. The most famous one is the Himalayan Pink salt originally from Pakistan only. This salt comes from the Khewra salt mine located at Jhelum District, Punjab. Pink salt has said to be discovered by Alexander the Great’s horses when they licked the surrounding stones which lead to the discovery of the mine. These ancient sea beds leave behind massive salt rock caves which are harvested by what is called a room-and-pillar method. This is where only a certain amount of salt is mine, leaving behind pillars of salt to support the mine from collapsing in. Once extracted the salt is separated into human grade salt and “other” salt. In order for salt to be human grade, it has to meet certain standards of quality. Human grade has “less impurities” or not as high of a concentration of trace minerals. Pink salt for example, when it has a lighter pink hue, it has less impurities or trace minerals making it human grade. The darker the pink the more impurities or trace minerals classifying it as non-human grade. This is why pink salt lamps tend to have darker pink hues because that salt cannot be used for human consumption.
Inland solar evaporation: this form of evaporation is sometimes referred to as desert salt. This process is similar to coastal salt making but instead it takes place inland either by lakes or underground streams that flow to the surface, like our Oryx Desert Salt from the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. As the water flows beneath or over the surface, it helps to dissolve minerals from underlying rock and soil beds, eventually drying out leaving behind salt. Yearly crops of salt can be harvested creating a sustainable source of salt.
What salt should you buy?
Now that you have just learn of 4 different processing methods, which one would you choose to buy? To be honest, there are pros and cons with each one and will vary depending on the company making the salt. Depending on what processing method, time, equipment, access, environmental factors, and worker treatment, each one plays a part into the quality and quantity of salt produced. Because of this, this dictates the price. Salt harvested in Pakistan will cost more than salt chemically made in a manufacturing plant, it will also have a different quality and taste, not to mention how it impacts the environment. When buying salt ask yourself where did this salt come from and how was it made? Was it made by a local village that uses an interconnective gravity-fed ponds that can take several years to produce salt, or was it created by a chemical company that forces a solvent into a drilled hole extracting a brine solution to manufacture salt? Although at the end of the day it is “just” salt, how it was created and who created it is what factors into its quality, quantity, and price.
So, the question is what should you buy? Well, I am a firm believer in buying the natural salts, those include sea salt, rock salt, and inland/desert salt. I tend to avoid solution mining as the final product has been stripped of its natural trace minerals and can lead to environmental damage. Although some of the other ones like rock salt, can also lead to environmental damage. At the end of the day, it is important to research your brands and ask where your salt is coming from. Choose companies that produce ethically made salt looking at factors such as treatment of workers, environmental practices, and overall quality of salt. Just a reminder not all salt is made equally and quality salt is worth the extra few dollars.
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Until next time – keep it salty!
-Alyssa aka the Salt Woman