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13 Things You Probably Never Knew About Salt

It's been valued as currency and decried as a health hazard, but there's so much more to salt than meets the eye.

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Sea salt crystals on one hundred dollars

It used to be used as money

Salt was so valuable in ancient Rome that soldiers were sometimes paid with it. In fact, the word “salary” comes from the Latin word sal, for salt. When a soldier was doing a lousy job, his paycheck might be cut, which is how we got the expression “not worth his salt.”

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Hands holding us dollar bills and small money pouch
Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock

Salt can still be valuable today

Amethyst Bamboo 9x salt, which rings up at $398 a pound, may be the most expensive in the world. This pricey stuff takes a lot of time to produce—it’s roasted nine times inside a bamboo pole at temperatures exceeding 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. One store says the resulting delicacy “smells like something dragons use to season their victims before eating them.” Check out these foods that have way more salt than you realized.

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salt in bag and scoop closeup on the old wooden background

It was a big import

Historically, salt’s value came from its ability to preserve food. Venice, Italy may be famous for its canals now, but salt imports fueled its rise as an influential trade power by the end of the 13th century.

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Sugar pouring down into blue cup

Salt also took on a great deal of symbolic value

There’s a reason it is mentioned so many times in the Bible (“salt of the earth,” “a pillar of salt,” “a covenant of salt”). Its preservative properties made it an apt metaphor for permanence and conviction.

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Oatmeal porridge with walnuts, blueberries and honey in wooden bowl with copy space - healthy rustic breakfast
Oksana Mizina/Shutterstock

Cutting it out isn’t easy

Most people know about the health risks associated with sodium, but reducing your intake isn’t always easy. Here are some facts about salt to put things in perspective. More than 75 percent of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed foods; bread, cured meats, and canned soup top the list. Even foods that don’t taste salty may contain it. Instant oatmeal with maple and brown sugar, for instance, contains 170 milligrams of ­sodium per ounce—a little more than a small bag of potato chips. Here are some great snacks to eat if you’re trying to cut back on sodium.

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Fast food french fries potatoes with skin served with salt and herbs on baking paper over old rusty metal background. Top view, space for text
Natasha Breen/Shutterstock

Even French fries aren’t necessarily the biggest culprit

How’s this for unexpected facts about salt? A 2012 study that examined sodium levels of fast-food menu items from different countries found that pizza and burgers contained more sodium than French fries, because they come in larger serving sizes.

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Meat. Raw rump steak on wood with herbs

Extra salt might be lurking in your meat, even if you cook at home and are very careful

According to the USDA, about 60 percent of all raw meat and poultry products are injected with or soaked in a salty ­solution. The words “enhanced,” “marinated,” “basted,” or “improved” on the packaging can signal the presence of salt. To avoid it, opt for label wording such as “contains up to 4 percent retained ­water,” says Christy Brissette, RDN, president of 80 Twenty Nutrition. Here are some more surprising food facts that might just change the way you eat.

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Sea salt crystals on a black background

Sea salt isn’t healthier

Sea salt may sound healthier than table salt, but most sea salts contain roughly the same proportion of sodium—about 40 percent—as table salt. If you are looking for sodium-free flavoring, try garlic, pepper, oregano, sage, rosemary, and other spices or herbs.

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Photograph of a salt shaker close up
Bernardo Ramonfaur/Shutterstock

Always try to reduce your intake

Even if you don’t have hyper­tension, it’s still a good idea to cut down on your salt intake to reduce your blood pressure, according to a 2017 ­review of 185 studies.

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Young businessman taking off glasses feels eye strain tension tired of computer sitting at cafe table with laptop, millennial guy has bad sight vision problem massaging dry eyes after long laptop use

It can cause headaches

For older folks especially, a heavy hand with the salt shaker may also hurt your head. A study of 975 people ages 60 to 80 with hyper­tension found that reducing sodium in their diets was associated with lower risk of headache. Be on the lookout for these other signs you’re eating too much sodium, too.

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salt and saltcellar on black stone table background top view moc
279photo Studio/Shutterstock

Still, we all need at least some salt

It facilitates the transport of nutrients and oxygen, allows nerves to transmit messages, and helps our muscles work. The average adult’s body contains about 250 grams of ­sodium—the equivalent of about three or four shakers of salt. Here are some more common myths about food and healthy eating that everyone thinks are true.

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salt shaker on wooden table

It treated goiter

In the 1920s, salt became a primary tool in the fight against goiter, a thyroid disorder caused by iodine ­deficiency. Iodized salt became common in American kitchens, and cases of goiter nearly disappeared. Today, only about 53 percent of table salt sold through retail is iodized.

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A lot of white salt is covered on the brown cement path to stop icy in the freezing night, feeling very cold. Concept salt, path and the safe in winter.

It’s used mostly on roads

After all those facts about salt in food, you might be surprised to know that the number one use of salt in the United States isn’t on food at all. In 2016, about 44 percent of salt went toward de-icing roads, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Only 3 percent was used in agricultural and food processing. Next, learn even more facts about salt with these 24 ways salt is making you sick.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery covers money, tech, products, health and safety for Reader's Digest and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.