How was salt used historically? (Salt use through time)
In this brief guide, we will answer the question, ‘How was salt used historically?’. We will discuss how salt was used historically and how it changed over time.
How was salt used historically?
Salt has played a pivotal role throughout history, serving as an essential food preservative for countless generations. Around 5,000 years ago, an influential discovery emerged from China; it unveiled the remarkable power of salt in preserving food.
This breakthrough proved to be a game-changer for humanity, revolutionizing our ability to store and maintain nourishment year-round. Consequently, settled communities thrived due to the newfound capability of long-term food preservation. Salt quickly became a crucial commodity in trade and commerce as its use expanded.
In the Western world about 1,000 years ago, people were consuming approximately 5 grams of salt daily. The renowned ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, documented salt trading routes dating back to the 5th century BC. These routes connect the salt-rich oases found within the Libyan desert.
During the early years of the Roman Empire, a network of dedicated roads emerged, including the renowned Via Salaria. Its purpose? To efficiently transport salt from the salt pans of Ostia to the imperial capital. This development marked a significant milestone in globalizing the salt trade, for it swiftly grew into one of the world’s most sought-after commodities.
The significance of salt escalated with the progress of civilization. It permeated into people’s diets, becoming an omnipresent dietary component that further amplified its consumption. Notably, the oppressive salt tax in France played a pivotal role in instigating the French Revolution.
During the struggle against British colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi led civil disobedience campaigns in India, making this tax a central focus. Salt, once a simple preservative, had evolved into a symbol of economic and political significance, shaping the course of history in various parts of the world. (1)
Why does salt preserve food?
Salt functions as a powerful preservative by reducing the water activity within foods. The term “water activity” refers to the amount of free water available for both microbial growth and chemical reactions. Sodium and chloride ions effectively interact with water molecules, enabling them to achieve this reduction in water activity.
Before the age of refrigeration, salt served as a primary method to hinder the growth and survival of undesirable microorganisms. While advancements in food preservation, packaging techniques, and rapid transportation have lessened the need for salt in this capacity, it still plays a vital role in preventing spoilage and extending product shelf life.
Furthermore, salt creates an environment that discourages the growth of pathogens while promoting the development of beneficial microorganisms in various fermented foods and other goods. (2)
How has salt consumption changed over time?
Salt is an indispensable ingredient in kitchens worldwide. It assumes a crucial role in cooking, seasoning, and preserving various food items manufactured across the globe. Interestingly, our ancient predecessors followed a diet that contained less than 1g of salt per day for countless millennia.
In the history of global trade, salt held a remarkable status as both an extensively taxed and widely exchanged commodity. Its peak consumption was experienced during the 19th century. However, with the advent of refrigeration, the necessity for salt as a food preservative became obsolete.
A recent resurgence in the consumption of heavily salted processed foods has offset the decline in salt intake. As a result, salt consumption levels are now approaching those seen in the 19th century, with many countries averaging approximately 9-12g per day. (1)
What is the significance of salt in the body?
Sodium functions as the primary cation, and chloride serves as the primary anion, responsible for upholding osmotic balance within the extracellular fluid (ECF) of the body. The body maintains precise control over serum sodium concentration and serum osmolarity through intricate homeostatic mechanisms.
These mechanisms involve triggers for thirst, the influence of antidiuretic hormone, and the reabsorption of filtered sodium in the kidneys. Sodium ions are indispensable in all mammals, including humans, as they ensure the regulation of blood volume, cellular osmotic pressure, and the transmission of nerve signals.
Similarly, chloride ions play a pivotal role in maintaining tissue osmolarity and regulating acid-base balance in the bloodstream. They also play a key role in activating essential enzymes in the stomach and facilitating the production of hydrochloric acid in the gastric environment. (3, 4)
The majority of table salt available for consumption today contains additives, and the composition of these additives varies significantly from one country to another. Notably, iodine, a vital micronutrient essential for human health, has been introduced into table salt to combat disorders arising from iodine deficiency.
Salt occurs naturally in many of the foods we consume, albeit in small quantities. Meats, vegetables, and fruits contain trace amounts of salt. Animal tissues like meat, blood, and milk generally possess higher levels of salt compared to plant tissues. [
Multitudes of processed foods nowadays heavily depend on salt, with over 75% of daily sodium intake deriving from the salt content present in these food products. (1)
What is the recommended daily salt intake?
Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Heart Association offer guidelines recommending that healthy adults should strive to restrict their daily sodium intake to 2.0 g/day and 2.3 g/day, respectively. It’s important to note that children have different sodium requirements, leading to variations in their daily dietary sodium intake compared to adults. (5)
Are there any negative effects of salt?
Indeed, the excessive consumption of sodium in our diet can result in a range of health issues. Current evidence underscores that our heightened salt intake primarily contributes to elevated blood pressure, thereby increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the adverse effects of a salt-rich diet extend beyond its impact on blood pressure.
These effects encompass an increased susceptibility to conditions such as stroke, left ventricular hypertrophy, and renal diseases. Recent discoveries also suggest that an excess of salt can potentially harm the heart, aorta, and kidneys, even in the absence of elevated blood pressure.
Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that excessively high salt consumption may have adverse implications for bone health, potentially contributing to issues like obesity, kidney stones, osteoporosis, and even playing a significant role in the development of stomach cancer. (6, 7)
In this brief guide, we answered the question, ‘How was salt used historically?’. We discussed how salt was used historically and how it changed over time
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HA, Sung Kyu. Dietary salt intake and hypertension. Electrolytes & Blood Pressure: E & BP, v. 12, n. 1, p. 7, 2014.
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake; Henney JE, Taylor CL, Boon CS, 4, Preservation and Physical Property Roles of Sodium in Foods. Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010.
Thompson, L. J. Sodium Chloride (Salt). Veterinary Toxicology, 479–482. 2018.
REDDY, K. A., & MARTH, E. H. Reducing the Sodium Content of Foods: A Review. Journal of Food Protection, 54(2), 138–150. 1991.
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Harvard. The Nutrition Source. Salt and Sodium, Harvard T. H. Chan. School of Public Health 677 Huntington Avenue, 2023
He, F. J., & MacGregor, G. A. . A comprehensive review on salt and health and current experience of worldwide salt reduction programmes. Journal of Human Hypertension, 23(6), 363–384. 2008.