Firstly, it is important to note that whilst the terms’ sodium’ and ‘salt’ are often used interchangeably, they are definitely not, strictly speaking, the same thing. So what are the differences?
Sodium is a naturally-occurring mineral that is food in foods or is added as part of the production process. It is found in all kinds of foods such as celery, milk and beets. But given its usage in the manufacturing process, pre-prepared foods have some of the highest quantities of sodium around.
Table salt, on the other hand, is a combination of the naturally-occurring sodium but also chloride. About 90% of the sodium we eat comes in this format due to how prolific it is across a broad range of foods. The rest of our intake comes from other sodium-containing items, things such as baked goods which have sodium bicarbonate in, for example. These types of sodium products are used to preserve the food or enhance it in some way, such as giving it a better colour or firmer texture.
Sodium Tripolyphosphate, or STPP food grade, is one such form of sodium that is readily available at a low cost and is used for a multitude of reasons. It is a preservative for meat, poultry, seafood and even animal feed. It is also used to keep moisture in foods.
In bygone times, salt was one of those precious commodities that very few people could afford. It was rare due to its scarcity – producing it was incredibly labour intensive and time-consuming. Furthermore, it could only be done in certain places with access to salt-making ‘facilities’ such as sea or brine water being nearby.
Fast forward to today, and salt is about as cheap and as available as anything ever could be, and most of us are a little guilty of over-indulging from time to time! But why exactly has sodium become so cheap to produce?
Salt used to be created from seawater by evaporating it using the sun. Alternatively, the water was heated in an open pan, and as such, this tended to only be done in places along the coast or near to brine springs or wells where the water was unusually salty. The salt yield would be low from these methods and as such, producers could keep the price high. Salt taxes were enforced, and monopolies were created, and it all led to wars and protests across the world from China to parts of Africa.
But the 19th century saw the industrial revolution happen and there was a new ability to drill into salt mines. This was still an expensive way of producing salt, but that much could be harvested at any given time that the supply was so high, it far outweighed demand. This drove the price too low levels and almost eradicated monopolisation as all of a sudden, there was so much available. Today, China is the largest global producer of salt.
The technological advancements the world has seen in both drilling and chemical production mean that the cost to produce sodium is lower than ever before.