Sometimes we get inquiries from our customers at The Meadow which, in the interest of promoting better awareness about good culinary salt, merit a public response. Jason L asks about the purity of sea salt. My book, SALTED, to be released this October 12 (more on that in a later post!), explores this question in detail, and provides solutions that lead us toward the ultimate goal of tastier, more exciting, satisfying, and nutritious food.
I have a couple questions about salt production and I’m hoping you can answer them. I’ve had an interest in salt for a while and how it is made. I’m curious about two things.
1. How can you tell where sea salt is made? Coastal water pollution is a problem all over the world. Why should I assume that “French sea salt” (or any sea salt) is made from clean waters? Is there a way to find out and/or verify?
2. Solar evaporation is a very old and common practice for making salt. But how do they keep stuff out of the ponds? Bird poop? Bugs? Dirt? Whatever else? It seems like creating something with that much exposed surface area is bound to get contaminants. I am hoping you can shed some light on these things for me. I haven’t been able to find any answers anywhere else on how salt production is kept clean. Michael Pollan writes about making brown salt from polluted water. Everyone writes about gathering crystals by hand, etc., but no one says anything about how salt is made clean.
1. Regarding the purity of salt:
The first thing you have to do define “pure” as it relates to salt. Consumers should consider impurities as either: a) contamination from environmental sources such as pollution, run-off etc.; or b) from chemicals deliberately added in to salt as part of its processing for industrial and consumer markets. In my opinion, the former is inexcusable. The latter is, at best, a necessary evil (e.g. salt iodization as part of strategic global health initiatives in impoverished countries), and at worst yet another example of the unnecessary industrialization of our food supply.
The “French sea salt” you refer to above could come from either of two seas: the North Atlantic on the west coast, and the Mediterranean to the south. The Atlantic waters are very clean, and the French sea salts made there are in turn filtered through exquisite marine wetlands that are among cleanest and closely protected in the world. The French sea salt from the Mediterranean comes from far less pristine waters, and the vast majority of it is harvested using heavy industrial equipment, though there are important exceptions (such as fleur de sel de Camargue).
The term “sea salt” itself reveals little about the purity of the salt. The vast majority of salts around the world sold as sea salt are in fact manufactured using industrial processes and standards. Industrially made sea salts can come from polluted waters such as the San Francisco Bay, and may be further contaminated during the harvesting process, which employs heavy, diesel-powered equipment. After going through a refining process to eliminate the industrial pollution that gets in them during evaporation and harvesting, industrial salt companies may add chemicals back in to the refined salt to keep it free-flowing, to make it white, to iodize it, etc. etc.
It’s important to recognize that chemically pure sodium chloride (NaCl) is NOT a natural salt from either a culinary or dietary standpoint, and such a thing did not even exist prior the chemical-industrial revolution of the late 1800s. Nature does not make anything resembling the refined, 99.8% and higher sodium chloride salts produced by the chemical giants who have taken over the manufacture most of the world’s salt. Natural salts have a host of trace minerals (upwards of 15% sometimes) and are almost totally devoid of harmful environmental contaminants, and these minerals are part of a salt’s naturally “pure” make-up. For this reason purity is not itself a terribly helpful term for salt, any more than it would be for rich topsoil, pungent grass, happy sheep, or molding cheese. The unfathomable complexity of these things offer something far more than purity: they offer wholesomeness.
I look at a host of things when determining whether we should carry a salt in our store, with the ultimate goal of understandings each salt’s suitability for eating. After a salt has won us over with its flavor, beauty, and behavior on food, we look deeper. For many salts we obtain a spectral analysis. Here we keep an eye out for positive things like levels of magnesium, and negative things like levels of mercury and lead. While heavy metals are very rarely present in levels sufficient for concern–often the levels are the same or lower than in natural rock salts, which predate man by several hundred million years–they can be indicators of a polluted environment.
But there are other things that are more important than a chemical analysis. Serious saltmakers are far more demanding than any technical specification can possibly reflect. As fierce guardians of the ecology in which they practice their trade, artisan saltmakers have a deep and nuanced understanding of the dynamics behind the creation of their salt. No amount of testing has saved Americans from contaminated eggs, produce, and meat because contaminants are part of the very mechanism of industrial food manufacturing—it’s just a matter of minimizing this contamination. Artisans practice outside of this logic, with criteria for quality organized around the principles of expert knowledge, hand labor, ecological stewardship, and economic sustainability. Such wholesomeness is at the heart of good salt, and I guess that insofar as its meets these standards, it is “pure.” This logic might be applied not just to salt, but to all food.
2. Regarding the contamination of salts from natural environmental things like birds and bugs:
Most sea salt is made in open salt pans where it is evaporated by the energy of the sun and wind. All open pan solar sea salts are subject to all the effects of the environment. A pristine natural environment will buffer salt pans from industrialization, but birds, fish, crustaceans, algae, and pollens are all present in such places. So, is this a problem?
In a word, No.
Admittedly, no unrefined sea salt will be utterly free of all the things that naturally occur in the this environment. (Fresh, ice-cold water drawn from a mountain spring water will contain organic matter. Water stored in plastic bottles on supermarket shelves will contain no organic matter–though it may contain Bisphenol A and other chemicals. Which is better?) But salt makers will often pour clean ocean brine over the salt crystals as they are harvested to rinse them of any unwanted matter. In other places, seasonal things like pollen from nearby mountains is considered part of the character of the salt, though this, too, is often rinsed out when the salt is going to be sold outside the community. In addition, the natural ecology of a healthy salt pond will help keep things in balance. As the chemical, visual, and taste analyses can attest, the combination of the pond ecology and rinsing in natural brine results in a very clean salt.