By E.R. Yarham
Summary: In modern medical lore, dietary salt is a categorical menace to health, and the physician’s prescription is simple: eat as little of it as possible. Yet the great value human beings have historically placed on salt suggests it is not the poison that medicine has made it out to be. In fact, the great natural nutritionist Dr. Royal Lee argued that the problem with our modern diet is not too much salt—the sodium of which is critical for countless functions of the body—but too little of sodium’s counterpart, potassium. Consume enough potassium through natural foods such as fresh vegetables, Dr. Lee said, and you don’t really need to worry about how much salt you eat. (He did recommend opting for whole, natural sea salt over refined, “regular” salt, however.) In this 1958 article from World Science Review, author E.R. Yarham discusses some nutritional roles of salt, as unearthed by various cultures throughout history, as well as the consequences of a salt deficiency. He recounts the dramatic experiment of a doctor and three students who deprived themselves entirely of dietary salt; within a week “cramp developed in the muscles, and the experimenters suffered from excessive fatigue and a general sense of exhaustion.” Salt is particularly critical for people who eat an agriculturally based diet or one heavy in cooked foods, Yarham warns. “Only where men live mainly on milk and flesh—the latter consumed raw or roasted—is it possible to go without ordinary salt.” Salt was so valued in some cultures, the author adds, that it was used as money, most famously in ancient Rome, where the empire’s soldiers were paid in salt—a practice from which the word salary derives. From World Science Review, 1958. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 99.
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Salt of the Earth
Salt—everyday, common substance that it is—has played a prominent part in the world’s history, and it is still very precious in Africa and the East, [where] not infrequently a native chief barters away one of his numerous wives for it. Because of the way civilized man cooks his food, salt is indispensable to countless millions of people today…
Used by Miners
Salt is invaluable in maintaining health, especially in the tropics. A striking affirmation of this fact comes from India. A medical report on the health of troops there stated that an extra salt ration was beneficial in the maintenance of general health in hot weather and that it was of the utmost use in the prevention or reduction of heatstrokes and [other harmful] effects of heat.
Commenting on this, the famous traveler the late A.F. Tschiffeley, who made the epic ride on horseback from South America to New York, said that during his journeys through hot desert regions—particularly along the Peruvian coast—he always carried with him a bottle containing a mixture of lemon and lime juice mixed with saltwater. The natives advised him to do this, because it prevents exhaustion caused by the loss of salt from perspiration.
In confirmation of [these facts], the beneficial effects of water mixed with a little salt are well known to Welsh miners who work in certain hot pits.
Salt has been used by man from time immemorial, although it appears from the Odyssey that in the time of the Greeks certain inland tribes knew nothing about mined salt, nor did some Indian peoples until the coming of Europeans. The same was true of parts of America. Only where men live mainly on milk and flesh—the latter consumed raw or roasted—is it possible to go without ordinary salt. That is why some of the nomads of the desert are able to live without salt, among them the Bedouins of southern Arabia.
Salt is the mark of an agricultural people, and a cereal or vegetable diet necessitates the use of salt. Boiled meat also calls for it.
No Salt as Punishment
The value of salt to people living somewhat artificial existences has been known for centuries, and the Middle Ages, which succeeded in discovering every refinement of torture, made use of this knowledge. In Holland one of the legal punishments was to deprive a man of salt, which caused depression and illness. Criminals in Sweden were at one time allowed—as an alternative to capital punishment—to abstain from salt for a month, with the result that they usually died.
During sieges and famines, lack of salt always caused suffering and ill health. In medieval times salt was of such importance in the diet that one’s social standing was shown by whether one sat above or below the salt at table.
Symptoms of Salt Lack
A medical man and three students, one a woman, underwent deprivation of salt in order to test the effects on the human body. It took about a week to render the body deficient in salt. The experimenters ate salt-free food, special bread and milk, salt-free butter, thrice-boiled vegetables, jam, fruit, and homemade, salt-free toffee. They also lost as much salt as possible through perspiration. Strange symptoms soon supervened.
The four lost their appetite, and a peculiar sensation arose in the mouth that was not a true thirst. All food seemed to be tasteless; cigarettes lost their flavor; and there was a feeling of sickness. Cramp developed in the muscles, and the experimenters suffered from excessive fatigue and a general sense of exhaustion. The doctor found even shaving tiring, and his arm felt unable to move. Two of the students “got into an extraordinary interesting state in which they were content to sit and do nothing in a chair, sometimes for hours on end.” They all became worn-looking and ill, although they continued to eat.
The evidence is that salt does play a vital part in the chemical processes of the body. And the fact that most people find they require it cannot be entirely put down to the fact that civilized races are inclined to reduce very greatly the food value of their diet by overcooking. The primitive native will make periodic treks to the sea in order to have a meal cooked in saltwater now and then, because he believes he will be sick if he does not have it so. Missionaries in countries such as New Guinea bear testimony as to this habit.
Animals know nothing of dietetics, yet some seem to crave salt. Dogs and other wild beasts regularly resort to springs containing salt. Herbivores, in particular, seek after it, and places where it is found are favored by ruminants. In primeval forests these creatures make paths from all directions converging on the salt deposits. Salt seems essential to their health and vigor.[Photo of men loading salt at a mine, with caption:] Meadow Bank Salt Mine—loading rock salt at the working face. (Photo: Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd.) (See original for image.)
Salt as Money
We begin to see why salt has played such a tremendous part in the history of civilization. Perhaps salt is not necessary for [natural] human existence, and in that sense is a luxury, but there is no doubt that for most people, living artificially as they do, salt is an essential item in their diet. Men have longed for it and enjoyed it since prehistoric times, and they have always consumed it when they could get it—and, as suggested, not only men but beasts have done so too.
Salt was one of the first articles of trade and is still a medium of exchange in the East. Cakes of it have been used as money for countless years. Marco Polo spoke of this, and salt played an important part in the financial system of the Mogul emperors. Salt was also used as money in Tibet, Abyssinia, and other parts of Africa, and the custom persists in some areas. It was customary, too, for Roman soldiers to receive salt as part of their pay. This amount was known as “salarium,” or salt money—hence the word “salary.”
In the East salt taxes were so exorbitant that trouble often arose. There have been many instances of this in India. Because of the heavy taxation, salt in the Orient frequently reached the consumer in an impure state, largely mixed with earth. This explains the New Testament phrase “the salt which has lost its savor.” What happens is that the salt is washed out of the mixture, and the “salt which has lost its savor” is the impurity that is left.
Salt Caravans of Timbuktu
Among the most remarkable sights the world can show are the great salt caravans of the Sahara. Thousands of camels cross the vast wastes of the desert laden with salt, which is more precious to the tribesmen than gold.
Modern methods of [transportation] are seen in the Sahara nowadays; motor coaches and lorries regularly cross it. But it will be a long time before mechanical transport replaces the long, slow marches of the salt caravans, some of which number 15,000 camels. Their arrival, twice annually, is one of the sights of the year at Timbuktu, much of whose wealth was founded on salt. Its renown as a mart for the bartering of this commodity spread to Europe, and at the height of its glory the fabulous city was the resort of wealthy and learned classes. Many of the houses boasted large libraries, and education reached a high standard.
The Sahara route is not the only famous salt highway. In early times incense shared with salt the distinction of being the chief economic and religious necessities of the people. In consequence we find that many of the great highways of trade in the ancient world were established in order to convey them, and the route to Timbuktu is a survivor of these.
The great Greek historian Herodotus—the Father of History—records the vast trade between the Syrian ports and the Persian Gulf, which owed its inception to the renowned salt of Palmyra, once a mighty merchant city, now a collection of Arab hovels in Syria. One of the oldest roads in Italy is the Via Salaria, or Salt Road. The immense salt fields of northern India were worked long before the invasion of Alexander the Great. There was also an important trade between Greece and southern Russia, the salt pans being at the mouth of the Dnieper [River].
Before the Norman Conquest, the salt pans of Cheshire and Worcestershire supplied not only Britain but northern Gaul. The route followed by the packtrains was south to the Thames, which was forded at Westminster.
By E.R. Yarham. Reprinted from World Science Review, July 1958, No. 66, by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research.
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