The Salt Wars

A look at the many conflicts over the precious, tasty mineral that humans need to survive

Yuya Shino / Reuters

Salt is a magical substance. It reduces bitterness, enhances sweetness, boosts flavor, and preserves perishable foods. Without it, we would die: The human body can't make sodium, but our nerves and muscles don't work without it. It was considered rare until quite recently, so it's hardly surprising that, throughout history, salt has been the engine behind empires and revolutions. Today, there's a new battle in the salt wars, between those who think that we eat too much of it and it's killing us—and those who think most of us are just fine. Join us for a serving of salt, seasoned with science, history, and a little politics.

One of salt's many mysteries is how our ancestors first figured out that they needed it: unlike hunger or thirst, someone suffering a sodium deficiency doesn't crave salt. What's more, until humans began farming, we had no need to add salt to our diets—even today, Masai hunter-gatherers can get enough salt simply by drinking the blood of their livestock. But, however our need for salt was discovered, extracting it and trading it has shaped human history. From the very first brine wells in Sichuan province, China, to Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, author Mark Kurlansky helps us trace the impact of salt through language, taxation, cuisine, and empire.

Although salt was one of the world's most valuable commodities for millennia, modern geology, technology, and food processing has made it cheap and ubiquitous. Globally, we each eat an average of 3,500 milligrams of sodium a day—a little more than a teaspoon and a half of salt. According to institutions such as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the American Heart Association, that's too much, and, if we want to avoid dying from cardiovascular disease, we need to reduce our consumption. But is that really true?

Cynthia and Nicky interviewing Don Tydeman at The Salt Cellar, Portsmouth, NH
Kathi Bahr

As the U.S. Food & Drug Administration prepares to issue new sodium reduction goals for food manufacturers, we dive into the contentious science of sodium to tease out what we do and don't know about the connection between salt consumption and health. It's a much more nuanced story than the constant refrain that we need to cut down would imply. So why is the U.S. government making policy if the scientific evidence isn't conclusive? In a special collaboration with the podcast DecodeDC, we untangle what the FDA is doing, and why—and what that means to you, as a consumer. The draft guidance remains open for comment until August 31.

Finally, we come full circle and explore salt's current culinary renaissance. From artisanal Icelandic lava salt to handmade hyper-local sea salt, we visit the enthusiasts who are restoring salt's lost status and value. Worried that you need to shake your salt habit? Curious about the merits of different gourmet salts? Mystified by the popularity of salt cod? Listen in to this episode for answers to all these questions and more.

This article appears courtesy of Gastropod, a podcast co-hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that looks at food through the lens of science and history.