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13 March 2013

Health-giving properties of artisanal salt

 Guest blogger, Henry Ko, health services researcher with SingHealth, Singapore, provides a personal commentary on issues raised by Mark Bitterman's book  on salt: “Salted: A manifesto on the world’s most essential mineral, with recipes”.

Relevant to the debate is "Salt, could it be implicated in autoimmunity?"(CABI's Nutrition and Food Sciences), reporting on two animal studies in Nature last week, and the latest research on iodine deficiency and salt iodisation,  found in March issue of Global Health Knowledge Base.


Salted-Cover-Bitterman-from-authorAs a healthcare researcher with both professional and recreational interests in food, nutrition, and cooking, I was drawn to a book I casually found whilst scanning a bookstore shelf in the cooking section called “Salted: A manifesto on the world’s most essential mineral, with recipes”. The writer is ‘selmelier’, Mark Bitterman.

For a book in the cookbook section, I found it highly enlightening and detailed, almost like a scientific textbook on salt. Make no mistake, this is not a regular cookbook. It is a book with three sections that (1) highlights human’s history with salt, especially the production of salt and culinary traditions of using salt, (2) has a section on identifying all the many different types and features of artisanal salts, and finally (3) a section with recipes for cooking and using salt for food (e.g. seasoning, curing).

Image: Mark Bitterman

What I learnt about the salt industry really opened my eyes. Some of the points highlighted in the book and by skeptics of the salt industry in the public, match - that there appears to be an agenda by big industry to sell iodised salt.

Modern salt  production has its origins in the highly purified salt intended for industrial purposes (e.g. batteries), and cooking/table salt is a (small) by-product of this industry. The book reports on the endangered tradition of salt-making and salt-mining, and how industrial large-scale salt manufacturing has taken over nearly all salt manufacture for nearly all modern-day uses. It highlights the fact that traditional salt-making techniques (e.g. sea water evaporation, salt mining, etc) keep many more nutrients essential to humans (including iodine). Indeed, salts mined from many sub-continental countries (e.g. Pakistan) are some of the most sought after salts in the world for cooking.

I already had a personal persuasion for artisanal, natural / organic, and local produce. However salt was really something that I rarely thought about in terms of being artisanal and complex. Mark Bitterman and his book “Salted” has convinced me that from a nutritional standpoint salt, like many other foods and nutrients, should not be “purified” to its basic elements (i.e. NaCl). Many nutrients work in synergy with each other, and sometimes it’s better not to “purify” something just because you can, as in the case of modern mass-produced salt. The methods of traditional artisanal salt-making seem to be able to produce salt that has complex nutritional benefits, being able to carry many trace minerals, as well as iodine, and tasting better.

From a culinary viewpoint I am enthusiastic about trying as many varieties of salt with my food to enrich and expand my palate and the taste of my food. I had in the past used pink salts (e.g. Himalayan, Australian Murray River) and found their taste richer and better than regular table salt. The only problem I have is to try to find producers of artisanal salts in a marketplace dominated by highly purified and mass-produced table salt!

I truly hope that artisinal salt production continues and regains its prominence in regional culinary and cultural traditions, and garners more awareness from international culinary, health, and nutrition experts alike.



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