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'We searched the world' for the perfect salt

"We searched the world looking for the highest quality of sea salt and discovered this salt harvested from the Mediterranean Sea on Spain's Costa Blanca. Its purity is unsurpassed. Let (our) Sea Salt add the gourmet touch to your beef, sea food, poultry and vegetable dishes." This boast is from the label of a box of sea salt.

Have you noticed that sea salt has suddenly become a high profile ingredient in cooking? What is sea salt anyway? It's just salt obtained by the evaporation of sea water -- the salt is taken from the brine of the sea. Some sea salt comes from Hawaii, Maine, Cape Cod, San Francisco Bay and the Great Salt Lake in the U.S., but mostly it comes from the Mediterranean: Greece, Sicily, France and Spain because in the warm, dry Mediterranean climate, it can be air dried without artificial heat.

What's the big deal about sea salt? It's been around since the middle ages. It's more expensive than regular table salt, but gourmets claim it tastes better. Actually the difference in taste is due to the impurities of the sea. Once the salt is dissolved, it is difficult to detect any difference in taste, unless taste is added. For example, Maine has a product called smoked sea salt.

There is a certain romance in the idea of sea salt. Would you rather have your salt come from an underground salt mine in Wieliczka, Poland or from the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Valencia, Spain? That was an easy choice wasn't it? The word "sea" invokes images of voyages to distant lands and exotic beaches. In America we are fascinated by the glamour of foreign cuisine. The marketers know how to exploit our hunger for a word from a warm place far from home so they give sea salt names like Kala Namac, Fleur de Sel, Alaea, Salish, Black Lava and Murray River. You wouldn't buy a box of salt called Ohio Pits would you?

Sea salt is sometimes marketed as being more healthy than regular table salt. But the Mayo Clinic, in its Nutrition and Healthy Living newsletter, says sea salt and regular salt have the same ingredients and neither is more healthy than the other, except that table salt has iodine, an essential element, added and sea salt doesn't. Both contain the same amount of sodium and nobody should have too much sodium.

The question to be decided here is whether sea salt is something special, worth more than regular salt or whether it is a gimmick -- smoke, mirrors and hype -- a creation of master marketers. I conclude that sea salt is pure sizzle, no different from what I will call "salt of the Earth."

Let me illustrate. Would you rather eat cane sugar from plantations in Honolulu, Hawaii or beet sugar grown on a farm in the Red River Valley near Ardoch, North Dakota? One comes from a beautiful tall grass plant and the other comes from a dirty beet -- two entirely different plants. It would be easy to charge more for the sugar from Hawaii with a claim of a special, unique, sweet Polynesian flavor wouldn't it? But cane sugar and beet sugar are the same.

In medicine we have the placebo. A placebo is a sugar pill or a pill without medicine, given from time to time, to patients just to satisfy them they're getting medicine. But it's deceit -- they're not getting medicine. But some of those patients actually improve as much as the ones who are getting the real medicine. The mind can do wonderful things when it believes.

And so it is that sea salt is a gimmick, a placebo, a product promoted and delivered with the hype of special taste and special qualities and the mind believes, so it tastes better and the gullible buyer is willing to spend more.

You understand the opinions expressed in this column are not scientific, just a product of taking overblown advertising claims with a healthy dose of common sense and a grain of salt -- salt of the Earth, of course.