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What is salt?

Salt is often referred to as “rock salt” or “sea salt”, and is a naturally occurring mineral made up mostly of sodium chloride. It is a crystallized solid, usually a translucent white, light grey or light pink colour. Salt is an essential mineral required by all animals for optimal functioning of the body and nervous system.

Salt is one of the oldest and most commonly used food seasonings known to man. Its taste is referred to as ‘saltiness’ and is one of the 5 basic human tastes. Until recently ‘salting’ has been a primary method of preserving food, especially meats.

Salt is also the source of the oceans salinity, supporting the wide variety of ocean life forms which cannot exist in fresh water. It is also important to the formation of clouds and rainfall.

How is salt used?

Since the earliest days of human evolution we have used salt to improve our lives. Today there are over 14,000 known uses for salt. It is consumed directly by humans as a seasoning or in ingredient. It is used in food preservation, especially for meat. Animals are fed salt both as a seasoning and as a dietary supplement in food.

The manufacturing of textiles, glass, rubber and leather all rely on salt as part of their production processes. Salt is used in the ‘softening’ of water which contains impurities such as dissolved rocks, calcium carbonate and other substances. Adding small amounts of salt to soften water helps reduce drain and pipework blockages, preserving the life of plumbing infrastructure.

About 40% of global salt production is used to produce chlorine and soda ash (sodium carbonate). Chlorine produced from salt is involved in the production of everyday items, including soaps, detergents, PVC pipes, mobile phones and many more. Another major use of salt is in the de-icing of roads during winter, especially in the northern hemisphere, to help prevent ice-related accidents.

Who uses salt?

Historically salt consumption closely resembled population growth, as the main uses of salt were human consumption and food preservation. In modern times other uses of salt have become dominant, leading to significant changes in consumption patterns.

Modern salt consumption statistics are not readily available, but salt is consumed in every country. China and the USA are considered to be the biggest consumers of salt globally. In China over 75% of total consumption was used for industrial applications in 2008, with edible salt accounting for just under 24%. In the USA edible salt accounted for only 8% of total consumption in 2002, with de-icing accounting for more than 50%.

Where does salt come from?

Throughout history salt has been traded between countries and various empires have attempted to control the industry. Wars were fought and empires fell over access to the salt trade. The dominant power of the day would control the industry. In modern times salt is common and cheap. Leading salt producers are those with the biggest demand, available reserves and facilities for extraction.

The top 10 global salt producers as of 2007:
  • China – 59.8 million tonnes
  • USA – 44.5 million tonnes
  • Germany – 19.8 million tonnes
  • India – 16.0 million tonnes
  • Canada – 11.8 million tonnes
  • Australia – 11.4 million tonnes
  • Mexico – 8.4 million tonnes
  • Brazil – 6.9 million tonnes
  • France – 6.1 million tonnes
  • United Kingdom – 5.8 million tonnes

Interesting facts about salt:

  • Salt was once traded ounce-for-ounce with gold.
  • The word salary has its’ origins from the Latin word salarium, referring to the gold paid to Roman soldiers in order to purchase salt.
  • The word salad literally means ‘salted’ and comes from the ancient Roman practice of salting leafy vegetables.
  • Global salt consumption is set to exceed 300 million tonnes per year by 2013.

Extra References:

For more information, visit our Mining and Metals section.
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