In Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett wrote: “Civilisation is 24 hours and two meals away from barbarism”. Remove salt, and that would probably come down to 12 hours and one meal, as anyone who has been on a diet would attest. There is a unique joylessness to a saltless existence — bitter-tasting vegetables and bland soup — which can transform even the most compliant citizens into rioters and revolutionaries. Salt has been one of the most sought-after commodities for much of civilisational history and anytime a government has tried to monopolise control over, or impose taxes on salt, there have been consequences, whether in Dandi, Gujarat or El Paso, Texas.
It’s not just that the human body needs salt for proper functioning — it hankers for it. Indeed, the craving for this humble mineral has been weaponised by the processed food industry to the extent that it has become, along with sugar and fat, the chief villain in the dietary nightmare that is the modern age. Which explains why a professor in Japan has invented a pair of chopsticks that uses mild electricity to deliver saltiness to the mouth. The chopsticks “adjust the function of ions such as sodium chloride and sodium glutamate to change the perception of taste by making food seem to taste stronger or weaker” and enhance the saltiness of food by one and half times. No doubt, a useful pair of implements to have around the house.
But as much as it is demonised, salt’s ability to elevate any food, including desserts like chocolate and ice cream, cannot be denied. In an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, the lead character declares, “Anytime anyone says, ‘Oh, this is so good. What’s in it?’ The answer invariably comes back: cinnamon.” Not really. The real answer, as anyone who has ever eaten saltless food knows, is salt.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on April 20, 2022 under the title ‘Salt of the earth’.