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A Brief History of Salt: How It Became The World's Most Used White Powder

Salt has changed the course of human history, from influencing wars to regulating economies, this is salt's story.

Published
Fit
5 min read
A Brief History of Salt: How It Became The World's Most Used White Powder
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Too much salt is bad for your health. But you've heard that a million times already, and you're already tuning out, so instead let's look at the history of salt.

No, not Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi salt march, but how salt came to be consumed by humans, how it started off as a rare commodity, evolved into a highly valued resource even becoming the primary form of payment, and eventually settled into a comfortable spot on our dining tables.

And it's VERY interesting.

This is the first of a three-part series on salt and the role it plays in our lives.

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As far back as the paleolithic age, humans ate mostly fruit and meat. Around 1.6 million years ago, as Homo erectus evolved, they began eating more meat.

Over time, as humans evolved hunting methods and became faster, more efficient hunters, their meat consumption also rose. This way of life would continue for more than a million years, with humans subsisting on fruits, tubers, meat, and any nuts they could forage.

Humans evolved from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to agricultural lifestyles over the millenia.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

No one knows EXACTLY when humans started consuming salt, but historians estimate the consumption of salt started rising as far back as 5000 to 10,000 years ago.

A 2001 study says that salt consumption rose around this time because of the increase in agriculture caused by overhunting, climate change, and population growth.

How do we know this? Well, Greek and Sanskrit, some of the oldest recorded Indo-European languages, both have words for salt, while no languages prior to this had a word for salt.

This salt was consumed and used in many forms, but the value of salt as a resource skyrocketed thanks to its ability to cure and preserve meat. Meat was a valuable resource. And waste was discouraged.

Salt kills microbes and prevents bacterial growth.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

In the absence of fancy refrigeration like we have now, our ancestors used salt to preserve their foods. Salt kills bacteria and other microbes, and once meat was treated with enough salt, or vegetables pickled with salt and vinegar, they would last for months.

The rise of agriculture also meant humans spent more time in their farms, tending to crops. This meant less time for hunting and finding animals regularly. Salt allowed humans freedom from fear of having meat spoil, and it allowed them to tend to their fields without worrying about food stores.

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As far back as 2000 B.C, records indicate that Egyptians used salt to preserve meat.

Historical records point at Egyptians using salt to cure and preserve meat as far back as 2000 B.C.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

Over time, salt went from being a cooking ingredient to something that allowed humans to preserve their food for cold winters, and avoid both wasting food and having to hunt frequently for food and protein.

In fact, even now residents of the coldest regions of the Earth, Yakutsk and Antarctica, use salt liberally to preserve food for months.

Fun fact: Eating highly salty food literally changes your taste in food because large amounts of salt dull your tastebuds, making most food taste bland and dull. This leads to you adding more salt to your food and the cycle repeats.

This "fun fact" became a reality that would alter the course of history in the 19th century. The English dominated the salt trade in the 19th century, exporting a large amount to the US through the southern ports of the United States.

When the US civil war broke out, the monthly salt allowance for the average soldier from the South(the US confederacy) was around 600 grams (1.5 pounds) of salt a month.

This converted to 23 grams of salt consumed per day, WELL ABOVE the modern recommendations of 3-6 grams. So you'd better believe these soldiers were QUITE addicted to their salt and salty foods.

During the civil war, the North blocked off the southern ports of the country, limiting the South's access to salt from England.

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This move was as devious as it was effective. Why? Well, without salt, the soldiers couldn't preserve their meats, which meant food became a crisis right off the bat.

The British exported salt to the South through the United States' southern ports.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

To top this off, the SUDDEN drop in salt intake severely hurt the morale of the soldiers, because as we've mentioned, salt dulls your tastebuds and makes food without salt taste bland and boring.

Speaking of historical significance, India has its own tale of salt. The British salt monopoly extended to their time colonizing India as well.

The British monopoly on salt extended to India as well.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

High salt taxes were levied on Indians by the East India Company starting 1835, and this eventually culminated in the Dandi Salt March led by Mahatma Gandhi from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930 as a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly.

The Dandi March was led by Mahatma Gandhi, to protest high salt taxes under the British.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

Those who controlled the salt, controlled power, influence, and money. Like money allows us to buy food, stay, and experiences, salt allowed humans to limit their struggles, store food for longer, and overall just made life a lot better for humans. Salt mafia and salt smugglers were not uncommon during this period.

So When Did Humans Realize Salt Wasn't All Good For Them?

A 1998 book, titled Salt, Diet and Health: Neptune's Poisoned Chalice: The Origins of High Blood Pressure, by Graham A. MacGregor and Hugh E. de Wardener covers in detail the history of salt.

In it, the authors write that the earliest recorded commentary linking dietary salt to blood pressure came from the Chinese in 1700 BC. It states, “..if large amounts of salt are taken, the pulse will stiffen or harden.”

But it would be more than 3000 years, in 1836 London, before this sentiment would be echoed by modern medicine.

Increased salt intakes have been linked to hypertension, heart disease, and increased stroke risk.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

And once salt's connection to high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke was established firmly, it would change the way humans treated salt forever.

Wait for part 2, where we take a closer look at salt's effects on the human body, the problems it causes, and how science tested and concluded the dangers of consuming too much salt.

Salt has its benefits, and in excess, poses serious health risks.

(Illustration: Deeksha Malhotra/FIT)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Salt   salt intake 

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