Here's Why We Cannot Live Without Salt
Salt is more than just a condiment. In this story, we explore how it shapes lives in the present day.
Salt. It's the one flavour we take for granted in our food and daily lives. You put salt in your food, and salt in your drinks, and without salt, your body suffers severely.
But what would happen if salt vanished from the face of the earth? What role does salt play in our lives? And could humans survive if there was no salt to eat?
Let's find out.
This is part 2 of our three-part series about salt. We already told you how salt became the world's most powerful white powder, and how it shaped wars, economies, and the lives of billions of humans.
To understand salt's role in our lives, we need to explore it on multiple levels - the human aspect of it, the industrial aspect, and the taste aspect of salt.
Salt - The Industrial Aspect
We've already told you extensively how salt, historically, was used as a form of payment, and how its preservative qualities made it an essential resource for humans across the world.
Cut to the modern day and salt is now a part of several thousand industrial processes that we take for granted. Globally, the salt industry estimated to be worth $28.5 billion USD in 2020, will grow to become a 32 billion dollar industry by 2026.
But one important change that's happened since the time of the British salt monopoly is humans realizing that salt is an essential commodity and not something that should be used as a bargaining chip or a negotiation tool to influence wars, economies, and the lives of millions.
In the present, salt is used in industries for some of these purposes:
Preservation of packaged foods and extending the shelf-life of food.
In the meat industry, salt is used for not only preserving but also tenderising raw meat, increasing the water-retention capacity of processed meat products like sausages and salami, as well as creating a better binding agent for processed meat products like chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, burger patties, and more.
So, while the salt industry on its own is worth roughly 30 billion USD the processed meat industry is valued at over 520 BILLION USD. This is expected to grow to just over 825 billion USD by 2027.
The bread and baking industry also heavily relies on salt to stay operational.
Salt makes gluten, the essential binding agent in breads, less sticky and more stable. Salt also allows the fermentation rate of the bread to be changed to create different kinds of bread.
The baking and bread industry globally rakes in revenues that touch $30 billion every year. In India alone, the bread industry is estimated to be worth over $7 billion.
The dairy industry also needs salt. Without salt, cheese is harder to come by. Salt affects fermentation and bacterial activity in cheese. It also preserves the cheese and improves its flavour. The right amount of salt affects the body and texture of the cheese by altering the structure of milk proteins.
All of these industries rely heavily on salt to not just function smoothly, but simply exist also.
But even if we sideline all of these industrial considerations, the human aspect of salt can't be overlooked. Without salt, many things we take for granted on a human level would simply cease to exist.
Salt - The Human Aspect
The role of salt in human life is surprisingly large. Salt, in most countries, is mixed with iodine to create iodized salt.
While those who were alive in the 1970s and 80s may know why this is important, many of us born in the 90s and 2000s have no idea why salt is iodized. Iodine is an essential element found in seafood and food grown in iodine-rich soil.
According to the WHO, over 1.88 billion people were iodine deficient in 2013. Just over 240 million of these were children. Iodine deficiencies are also the single largest preventable cause of brain damage, according to a 2013 study.
An iodine deficiency in adults can lead to thyroid dysregulation, which leads to goiter. While goiters are usually non-serious, the worst-affected victims of iodine deficiencies are pregnant mothers and babies.
According to the WHO, iodine deficiency during pregnancy can cause brain damage to the foetus, low birth weight, and increased premature birth rates and infant mortality rates.
Further, in the first two years after birth, iodine is essential for the brain to develop in babies. An iodine deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism as well as cognitive and developmental disabilities in children.
A small iodine deficiency can lead to babies with developmental difficulties, while a sizeable iodine deficiency can cause conditions like dwarfism, mental retardation, cretinism, and other forms of stunted growth.
For example, a 1996 survey by UNICEF, in a decidedly iodine-deficient Kazakhstan, showed that 10 percent of children born in Kazakh households were stunted or disabled in some way.
According to a report in the New York Times, Kazakhstan at the time was remarkably iodine-deficient, with just 28 percent of households getting iodized salt.
But since the 90s, the country has embraced iodization, and now records no households with iodine deficiencies.
On our own soil, India boasts an impressive 93% iodization of households. However, this wasn't always the case. The first recorded instance of iodine deficiency in India was in 1908, with many other studies in the subsequent years finding high numbers of goiter.
In the 2009 Coverage Evaluation Survey, however, India recorded that it had crossed 91% iodization of households. Unfortunately, this number isn't even across states.
While states like Manipur, Meghalaya, and Nagaland reported that over 97 percent of their population had access to iodized salt, parts like Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka reported an average of 35 percent access only.
The emphasis on eliminating iodine deficiency has led to 88% of the world's population now using iodized salt. The number of countries with adequate iodine intake also jumped from 67 in 2003 to 118 in 2020.
Worldwide, while iodized salt has become more the norm than the exception, 21 countries still report iodine deficiencies.
Salt - The Taste Aspect
With the industrial and human aspects out of the way, without salt, we wouldn't have many of our favourite foods. Salt is one of the five tastes that the human tongue can...well...taste. The five tastes we can detect are salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.
When you strip away salt, you remove an essential flavour block from the palate and the plate. French fries, chips, sauces, dips, bread, and nearly 90 percent of all the foods you eat on a daily basis would either taste nothing like they do now, and they would also void you of the essential sodium your body needs to function.
Without salt, athletes wouldn't be able to rejuvenate their muscles from endurance sports.
Salt forms an essential ingredient in all electrolyte drinks - whether that's nimbu paani, gatorade, or even Oral Rehydration Solutions which are administered to people suffering from dehydration and heatstroke.
So while too much salt is bad for you, without salt, our plates, no, life itself, would lack flavour.
Come back for part 3 of the salt series, where we conclude with the problems that salt can cause, and what happens when you consume too much salt.
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