Would you be surprised to learn that one of the most common items found in your kitchen or on your dinner table used to be worth as much as gold? It’s true! What are we talking about? Sugar? Pepper? Nope! It’s salt.
From time to time, you may have heard someone say that someone or something is “worth its salt.” This common idiom means that someone or something deserves respect and is worth its cost or has value.
The phrase originated with the Ancient Romans, who valued salt highly. Over time, salt has often been associated with good things, because of its health benefits and great value.
Great value? Yes, even though today’s table salt can be purchased cheaply at the grocery store, salt was very valuable thousands of years ago.
Scientists believe that the harvesting of salt from salt water dates back at least 8,000 years. In ancient times — before modern canning methods and refrigeration — salt was used as a preservative, especially for meats.
Our bodies need salt to function properly. Salt helps to control the level of water in the body. It also helps the nervous system to send electrical signals to the brain.
When ancient peoples began to farm and eat more vegetables and less red meat (which already has salt), adding salt to food became necessary. Salt is also one of the basic human tastes, and people enjoyed adding salt to add flavor to bland foods.
So everyone wanted and needed salt, but only a few areas of the world could produce it — either through access to salt water or underground salt mines. As a result, salt became a top trade item with great value.
Ancient Roman soldiers were paid with special money that could be used to purchase salt. This special money was called salarium, from which we get our modern word “salary.” In fact, salt was so expensive during the Middle Ages that it was often called “white gold.”
Salt is a mineral made up of sodium chloride, a chemical compound formed from sodium and chlorine. It comes in several different forms. Most of the salt on Earth is dissolved in the oceans. The salt that can be found underground comes from oceans that have dried up due to climate changes over time.
Unrefined salt, such as sea salt, is made by evaporating sea water until only salt remains. It is not eaten often, because it usually has impurities from other minerals that give it a bitter taste. These unrefined salts are often used in bathing additives (bath salts) and cosmetics.
The table salt we use to season our food is refined salt. The refining process removes impurities and improves its taste. Most salt produced today isn’t used for food, though. In addition to producing salt to use on icy roads, there are many other industrial uses for salt, including in the manufacture of pulp, paper, soaps and detergents.
You may also see iodized salt on grocery store shelves. Iodized salt is table salt with added compounds that contain iodine. Iodized salt helps to reduce iodine deficiency, which can lead to many different types of health problems.
Even though salt is necessary for health, too much salt can cause health problems, including high blood pressure. Today, doctors recommend limiting salt intake. Many traditionally salty foods can now be found in low-sodium varieties.