The chips tasted pretty good — then I saw the words that made me put them down. No, the bag did not say “contains triglycerides” or “full of transfats.” It said — proudly, if you can believe it — “with sea salt.”
I am not sure how or why sea salt has become trendy. I am fairly certain, though, that like many things that enter popular culture sea salt has not been the recipient of much thought. Here’s why.
The ocean is filthy. It always has been and always will be, though we have made it worse. Fish and birds and whales and crustaceans poop there. So do we, through the numerous developed countries that employ what is called “ocean outfall” to pump their sewage into one of the seven cesspools, and so do the many undeveloped countries who achieve the same effect by dumping their sewage into rivers. (Heavens — now you could fetch water from the Gulf of Mexico, let it evaporate, add vinegar, and have salad dressing!)
Even the salty inland seas around the world are not exactly pristine. So what in the world possesses us to suppose that it’s a good idea to take some of the water from one of these places, let it dry, scrape up what’s left, and put it on our food?
There was a time when using sea salt was a necessity. Despite the claim of a previous bit of trendy nonsense, salt is essential to us. In ancient societies salt had enormous value as a commodity. Roman soldiers were paid a “salarium,” an allowance for the purchase of salt, which is how we have the word “salary.” If by letting water from a nearby ocean evaporate one could get valuable salt, why not?
But that was then.
Table salt results when an atom of sodium is combined with an atom of chlorine. That is all. It is a white, crystalline substance. If it is any other color, if it is gray or brown or orange, it contains something else, too. Sometimes if it is white and crystalline, it still might contain something else. (Indeed, iodine is often added, to prevent goiter — we need iodine.) If sea salt is any different from ordinary table salt, then it has to contain something in addition to sodium and chlorine. Do you know what that is? Neither do I, but I can guess and so can you.
So why in the world would we want to consume the stuff?
I think it might be a remnant of the breathtaking failure that was the hippie culture, a combination of phony mysticism and bargain-basement self-justification, the idea that panhandling for a dollar was better than actually earning it. This included the notion that persons who live in huts and cook their meals over dried manure are somehow wiser than the rest of us. As always, there were and are dabblers. The result has brought us nonsensical phenomena.
For instance, there is “organic sugar.” As with salt, the formula for common refined sugar is simple: take 22 hydrogen atoms, 11 oxygen atoms, and 12 carbon atoms, combine them in that oh-so-special way, and presto, you have a sucrose molecule. And guess what? It is an organic molecule, because in the world of chemistry “organic” means “contains carbon at the molecular level.” There is no inorganic sugar. There cannot be inorganic sugar.
But the word “organic” has lost its precise definition. And chemistry has gotten confused with psychology, to the extent that fluffy feelgood-ism can be thought of as psychology as opposed to pathology. Alas, this has happened to much of science.
The fact is, though, that a sucrose molecule is a sucrose molecule, no matter where the atoms came from. Add anything to the molecule and it’s not sucrose anymore. Take anything away, and it’s not sucrose anymore. No matter how you arrive at it, it’s either sugar or it isn’t.
The same thing is true of salt. Its origin does not matter. If it’s NaCl, it’s table salt. If it isn’t, it isn’t. Salt doesn’t care where its atoms originated.
What troubles me about it all is that these trendy items seem to be free of the scrutiny that is applied to other food ingredients. “Sea salt” doesn’t tell us much, and neither does “organic sugar.” If this salt is better, prove it. Take it apart. List the things that it comprises. And, no, “trace minerals” doesn’t cover it.
I don’t mean to be cranky here. Please forgive me if I think it’s a little nutty that the phrase “with sea salt” is considered good when that phrase might mean “contains fish poop.”
If you think the addition of browness to a substance makes it better, more power to you.
But, please, let’s define our terms. Let us use some precision in describing things. If we’re going to say “sea salt,” let’s also name the sea involved. Let’s list the stuff, if any, that separates it from plain old table salt out of the round blue box.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at email@example.com.