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Thinking Critically - Salt: A pseudoscience marketer’s dream

Salt is salt. Among my many pet peeves are the marketing of nonsense, pseudoscientific health fads, advertising as journalistic content and morning news shows.

Salt is salt.

Among my many pet peeves are the marketing of nonsense, pseudoscientific health fads, advertising as journalistic content and morning news shows.

Last week, Global TV managed to pull off the quadfecta when they invited a pair of women onto its Saskatoon morning show to promote the “benefits” of Himalayan block salt cooking. I was shocked I had not heard about this nonsense yet, but there they were, two business women spouting all kinds of unsupportable claims cloaked in all their pseudoscientific glory.

Salt, of course, is one of those food products that is both essential for human health and an unhealthy boogeyman killing us all. In other words, it is an unscrupulous or ignorant marketer’s dream. I tend to lump the charlatan and the true-believing dupe together because whether they are intentionally trying to deceive or deceiving by proxy of having been taken in by charlatans themselves, makes no difference to the end result, which is relieving credulous humans of more of their hard earned money than they need to spend.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Putting aside the fact there are other types of salts, which kind of negates my original statement that salt is salt, what we are talking about here is common food salt. At its most basic, salt is one sodium ion combined with one chlorine ion. Sodium is a vital nutrient that helps maintain the human body’s normal fluid balance and cardiovascular function. Like most things, though, consuming too much can be unhealthy. So can consuming too little.

All salt comes from saline water. Funny, right? Whether it is iodized table, coarse sea, kosher, designer or Himalayan rock; whether it was petrified from an ancient sea now exposed on a mountainside, evaporated from an inland saline lake into a dessicated powdery honey comb on the desert floor or crystallized in a test tube in a lab; it is sodium and it is chlorine.

Nature is rarely that precise, however. Saline water (and hence, salt) actually contains about 86 per cent sodium chloride and 14 per cent other trace minerals, elements and/or compounds, namely sulphate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, bromide, borate, strontium and fluoride and others in descending order of quantity.

In refined salt, these have mostly been removed. In sea salt (another loaded marketing term since all salt is sea salt), and other marketing-created salt varieties, they have not.

Of course, in today’s marketing parlance, “processed” is bad and “pure” is good. In the case of salt, though, the processed may be purer than the pure. As noted earlier, natural (another loaded marketing word) salt contains impurities. You may have noted that some of those were also vital nutrients. That is where the bogus claim that sea (or natural) salt is more healthful comes from.

Whether we need to get these other nutrients from our salt, particularly if that salt is being peddled under a fancy label for 10 or 100 times what ordinary table salt costs, is questionable at best because none occur in enough quantity for salt to be a significant source thereof without consuming way too much sodium.

So, in fact, ordinary table salt is more pure from a sodium point of view. What the marketers appear to want to imply by pure, though, is that the impurities (sorry, essential minerals) were put there by nature, not by man as they are in refined salt. That is true. Table salt generally contains added iodine and an anti-caking agent. We might do well to remember that iodine (also a vital nutrient) was originally added to salt because most people were iodine-deficient. Of course, we all now eat so much kale, we don’t need the added iodine, right? Don’t get me started on the nonsense behind the superfoods craze.

These days, if you’re a marketer who wants to rip people off, you just need to repeat the following mantra: “Nature good, man evil.” It also doesn’t hurt to recognize that media outlets, increasingly desperate for content as journalistic resources dwindle, are too frequently eager to broadcast or publish your nonsense as content without critical analysis.

Salt is salt. It is good for us, it is bad for us, but there is no appreciable difference between what you get in a rectangular white box for 50 cents a pound and what you get in a fancy glass grinder for 40 dollars a pound.

And the testimonials from people who waste their money because of this marketing nonsense are beyond ridiculous. “Himalayan sea salt is my favourite; it really brings out the flavours in the food I’m cooking.”

Of course it does. It is salt. That is what salt does and I defy anybody to produce contrary evidence in a proper, double-blind, clinically-controlled taste test.

So, can there be any reason why one might buy fancy salt? In fact, I buy coarse “sea salt” for seasoning meat because it is easier to work with. I do not buy the fancy designer crap, though, just basic coarse salt, which inevitably comes in a package with the words “sea salt” on it. It is slightly more expensive (about one-and-half times), but since I only buy it about once a year, it’s not such a big deal. If I could get the coarse stuff in normal iodized table salt more cheaply, though, I would do that.

Salt is salt.

By the way, what the hell is up with all the morning news shows having to have a zany weatherman? I hate that.