Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Salt of the Earth

A reader has asked about salt:

. . . purchased Black Hawaiian Sea Salt from Trader Joe's and after examination, I discovered that it is white salt that is covered in charcoal. And yes, charcoal is listed as one of the ingredients. Wtf is that about?

Let’s back up a mo and consider different forms of salt.

There are three kinds of salt in my kitchen: table salt, kosher salt and sea salt.

Table Salt
Table salt is highly refined in order to improve its storage and handling characteristics. The refining process involves a brine solution that is treated with chemicals that precipitate most “impurities” (largely magnesium and calcium salts, considered by some food activists to be highly valuable for health).

According to Wikipedia,

Anticaking agents(and potassium iodide for iodised salt) are generally added at this point. These agents are hygroscopic chemicals which absorb humidity, keeping the salt crystals from sticking together. Some anticaking agents used are . . . sodium alumino-silicate, and alumino-calcium. Concerns have been raised regarding the possible toxic effects of aluminium in the latter two compounds, however both the European Union and the United States Food and Drug Administration(FDA) permit their use in regulated quantities.

If “fortified” with inorganic iodine (usually potassium iodide), the added iodine compound needs to be stabilized, so a sugar is added to stabilize it—which then discolors it, so the salt needs to be bleached.

So much for what we thought of as a “pure” product.

Kosher Salt
Again according to Wikipedia,

Kosher salt, unlike common table salt, typically contains no additives (for example, iodine, although kosher salt produced by Morton contains sodium ferrocyanide as a free-flow agent . . . Kosher salt gets its name, not because it follows the guidelines for kosher foods as written in the Torah(nearly all salt is kosher, including ordinary table salt), but rather because of its use in making meats kosher, by helping to extract the blood from the meat.

Sea Salt
Food activist Sally Fallonadvises her readers to avoid the two processed salts described above in favor of sun-dried sea salt, which contains organic material (trace minerals, etc.) without the stabilizers, anti-caking agents, chemical additives or bleaches.

Most sea salt, however, is still somewhat industrially refined. You have to search hard for salt that is actually sun dried, and the price goes up with the quality.

Fleur de sel ("Flower of salt" in French) is the Beluga caviar of salt. It is hand-harvested by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans. It is usually fairly expensive and, like wine, has terroir—a site-specific flavor. I got some in Slovenia last summer and use it sparingly on special things.

And now back to the original question:

One kind of sea salt is Hawaiian black sea salt, which is sea salt is combined with activated charcoal.

According to one vendor of this salt, the charcoal “compliments the natural salt flavor and adds numerous health benefits to the salt.”

What health benefits? Well, according to the National Library of Medicine, "Activated charcoal is used in the emergency treatment of certain kinds of poisoning. It helps prevent the poison from being absorbed from the stomach into the body.”

Some believe that activated charcoal is also effective in relieving diarrhea and intestinal gas—although this is not accepted widely in traditional medicine.

One vendor of an activated charcoal supplement has this somewhat tentative health information (emphasis mine):

Some research has shown that activated charcoal may help in the reduction of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and the increase of HDL (good) cholesterol, although this has not been entirely proven.

Activated charcoal may also possibly lower the absorption of certain fatty acids and fatty alcohols, and positively affect lipid levels.

Research has been conducted about the effect activated has on alleviating digestive complaints such as intestinal gas and diarrhea, and again, this process is not entirely understood by researchers.

Activated charcoal has also been shown to possibly alleviate the symptoms associated with cholestasis of pregnancy, uremic pruritis associated with uremia, and congenital erythropoietic porphyria (Gunther’s disease).

Activated charcoal is commonly used to prevent overdose of certain drugs and medications, though charcoal has no adsorption effect on inorganic poisons.

More on Salt
One of my all-time favorite reads is Salt: A World History. Everything you wanted to know about salt and history. And it is interesting. Really.


Stephanie said...

Thank you for all of this information and research. :) I'm pretty sure I don't want to voluntarily eat charcoal now.

Elizabeth said...

Unless you think you're being organically poisoned...

Stephanie said...

It's not out of the question.