There’s hydrogen and helium/Then lithium, beryllium/boron, carbon everywhere/nitrogen all through the air/With oxygen so you can breathe/And fluorine for your pretty teeth/Neon to light up the signs/Sodium for salty times . . .

My daughter is studying the periodic table in school and this song is stuck in my head. But, it got me to think about salt, one of the most basic and recognizable compounds out there – NaCl, or sodium chloride. I don’t know too many other compound formulas off the top of my head aside from water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Salt is something that seems so simple — until you begin to delve a little deeper.

Of course, when I think of salt, I think of the ocean. It is what differentiates the sea — that salty taste on your lips after being out on the water or in it. Some of the salt that we eat comes from the ocean. In a very oversimplified way, seawater is evaporated and the salt is left behind. This can be done on a large scale with evaporating ponds, or sometimes by heating the water, or even by freezing it so that the freshwater freezes out and leaves the salt behind. There are all manner of varieties of sea salt that have different flavors and textures depending on how they are dried and where they come from.

But, not all salt comes from the sea. Much of it comes from salt mines in places that are far from the ocean. One of the biggest salt mines in the world is in Pakistan — that’s where Himilayan sea salt comes from. This type of salt is known for its pink color, which comes from the little bit of iron it contains. It turns out that there is a lot more in salt than just sodium and chloride. There are a variety of other minerals in salt including magnesium, calcium, and potassium.

One that you might expect to see in this list is iodine. But, iodine isn’t naturally found in salt. It is an additive in much of the salt consumed around the world. That’s why you see the term “iodized salt.” The reason that iodine is added to salt is that it is an essential nutrient that causes major problems for humans who don’t get enough of it. And, since most humans eat salt, this is a simple way to get iodine into peoples’ diets. Iodine is necessary for the healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, which controls all kinds of hormone activity in the body including brain function. In some cases, it can lead to goiter and, in severe cases to dwarfism or mental retardation.

When I think of iodine, in addition to salt, seaweed comes to mind. That pungent smell you sniff at low tide comes from the iodine that is naturally found in seaweed. So, it is a little funny that the salt that comes from the sea sometimes has a bit of the sea added to it. It makes sense, too, that many types of seafood are high in iodine. Since seaweed is a part of the marine food chain, iodine gets incorporated into lots of marine organisms that we also eat. So, if you prefer to eat non-iodized salt, you can get your iodine by consuming other foods from the ocean. While I love to eat seaweed, not everyone does. But, you can get your iodine from shellfish and finfish too.

In addition to not all salt being iodized, it also doesn’t all contain the same mixture of minerals. While these minerals can lend flavor and nutritional benefits to salt, they can also change the flavor and so are often filtered out, at least for the type of salt we eat. For the salt used in bath soaks, the minerals are highly valued and left in. That gets to another type of salt we use for purposes other than eating — kosher salt. Kosher salt can, of course, be eaten, but the original purpose of its larger grain size was to extract blood from meat as a part of the koshering process.

Kosher salt isn’t the only coarse type of salt. In addition to variations in mineral content and, therefore, color, salt can have a wide range of crystal size and structure. Some salts are flaky and light and others are rockier and crunchier. They are processed and handled in different ways to produce the desired texture depending on their intended use.

My favorite type of salt is still in its liquid form. There is a literal and palpable softness that the salt gives to the water of the ocean. And, it is neat to understand its dietary nutritional purpose as well.

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