Salts, combinations of elements that form crystalline structures when close together and dissolve in water and other solvents, are some of the most important compounds on Earth.
There are many different kinds of salts depending on the elements that are used in their construction, and advances in the way we understand the way salts form and reform their ordered structures have led to technologies such as lithium batteries, pharmaceuticals and even nuclear reactors.
Most life on Earth, and humanity in particular, is closely tied to a specific form of salt found commonly in our oceans. Referred to as table salt, salt, or halide, sodium chloride is a salt consisting of sodium and chloride ions. Sodium chloride has been used by living beings on Earth since they first began to take shape.
Countless organisms have relied on salt in order to regulate nerve impulses, control the flow of fluids, and change their pH. Humans are no different in this regard, and since we lose salt through perspiration it’s required for a healthy diet. While some of the food we eat naturally contains salt, its necessity, usefulness and enchanting taste has led to salt becoming entrenched in human cultures.
Salt is mainly harvested through living or buried oceans. Seawater contains around 3.5 percent salt, and entire ancient cultures were built around placing seawater in large shallow vats. These vats were then either boiled or allowed to sit in the sun in order to evaporate as much water as possible, leaving precious salt behind.
Salt was used primarily to preserve food by drawing out excess moisture and killing any bacteria trying to take hold. Ancient people relied on the dehydrating power of sea salt in order to travel long distances without worrying about spoiled food.
Unfortunately, new research is showing that most of the sea salt currently on the market contains tiny pieces of plastic due to micro-plastic pollution. It is still unclear what effects these pieces will have on the long-term health of consumers.
Oceans that were active millennia ago but have long since dried up left behind huge salt deposits buried hundreds of feet underground. These underground deposits are where most of the pure white and finely grained table salt we frequently use comes from. This ancient salt is heavily refined to remove impurities, which depending on the mine’s location can give the salt various colors and mineral contents.
The difficulty in obtaining salt through evaporation or mining made it incredibly valuable to the ancient world. While we are quite used to it, the amount of salt the average household keeps on hand in order to flavor food is quite literally equal to a medieval king’s share.
Interestingly, only a small fraction of the salt that we use goes towards food. Most of the salt currently consumed is used in the chemical industry and on frozen winter roads.
While plants rely on various salts in order to function correctly, they do not have an efficient way of disposing excess salt. Instead of simply sweating it out, plants usually sequester surplus salt into leaves that they then jettison from the plant. This means that when plants are exposed to high levels of salt, such as when roads are salted in the winter time leading to salt-heavy runoff, they tend to drop a lot of leaves at the very least.
Resist the temptation to bury your property in a layer of salt this winter and only use it as a last resort, relying instead on sand to provide most of the necessary traction in heavily trafficked areas if possible.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at email@example.com.