Black lava salt, pink salt, red salt, smoked salt, truffle salt, desert salt. No longer is salt the humble seasoning that we add religiously to all recipes in a supporting role to highlight other flavours, but with gourmet salts as the seasoning du jour, it has become the star of the plate. Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen explores this integral ingredient.

Salt is a mineral consisting of mostly sodium chloride (NaCl) and humans need it for survival. Not only do our nervous systems need it to function, but it has been preserving life by preserving food since ancient times. There are two main sources of salt. It is harvested directly either from sea water

or from rock salt deposits formed by the evaporation of earlier seas that left a layer of salt beneath the earth. The salt is extracted by solar evaporation that, thanks to wind and sun, leave salt crystals behind, or rock salt shaft mining or solution mining.

Salt or “white gold” was once as important to civilization as oil is today, precious because it was so hard to extract and process. Large quantities were needed to sustain populations, especially in cold climates, where curing meats, salting fish and pickling vegetables were required to survive the long freezing winters.

So valuable was salt that the Roman soldiers were paid in it – giving birth to the word salary. The origin of the word salad has the same root named after the Roman preparation of vegetables and greens dressed with oil and salt. Salt’s ability to preserve food turned it into a basic human need that governments around the world abused to fill their coffers. Arguing that it was a product of the earth and not created by men, it apparently belonged to the state and the fact that it was difficult to find, extract and transport gave them all the more reason to tax it heavily.

The tax on this precious mineral was met with fierce opposition from ordinary people across the globe. In France the controversial gabelle salt tax was said to contribute to the French Revolution whilst in India Ghandi’s Salt March brought his country a step closer to independence from the British.

Today famine is not a primary concern in the developed world, and salt is rather appreciated for the unique taste and textures it creates. We love salt for the almost addictive saltiness that has us eating a bag of biltong instead of a few slices. Salt’s real magic however is itsability to act as a flavour enhancer – salt allows flavours to blossom.

It is this magical attribute that is apparently to blame for the fact that we today consume far too much salt and are eating ourselves to death. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), non-communicable diseases are the main contributor to mortality and morbidity globally and elevated sodium intake is associated with a number of these diseases including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and strokes. The WHO is campaigning worldwide for countries to commit to addressing the issue and follow their recommendation of 5g sodium per day for adults.

The salt shaker at the table or the elegant Maldon visual seasoning on a salad are not the culprits, but rather industrially processed foods where salt is used extensively as cheap flavour enhancer. To make things worse for South Africans, newspapers reported last year that we have a particularly salty palate and that South Africa’s McDonald’s franchises sell some of the saltiest Big Mac burgers in the world. According to a report by World Action on Salt and Health (Wash) local Big Macs are the fourth saltiest in the world with 2.47g salt per burger – half the WHO recommended daily intake.

While the fast food giant has decreased its seasoning of products in some countries between 2006 and 2014, it has increased it in South Africa. Two years ago minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, signed an amendment to the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act of 1976 in an attempt to force food producers to reduce the amount of salt in products like bread, butter, breakfast cereals, potato crisps, ready-to-eat snacks, processed meat, sausages, soup powder, gravy powder, two-minute noodles, stock cubes and jelly by 2019. The new restrictions would require a loaf of bread, that now contains 4.8% salt, to contain about 4% by 2016 and 3.8% by 2019.

Once believed to have the power to ward off all evil, salt’s role in society has certainly changed in recent years. It now seems to be the root of much evil.