Lily Leedom is not shy about her love of salt: She’s enjoyed snacking on it for as long as she can remember and has even founded a business selling never-seen-before varieties. Now, the salt-loving evangelist is on a mission to change people’s perception of the oft-maligned ingredient with a message that it can boost the flavor profile of even the simplest of dishes.
“I’m trying to make salt the star of the show,” said Leedom, CEO of Saltery. “As more consumers appreciate the source of their food and the quality of their food, they’re going to catch on to the fact that salt is an overlooked category they should be paying attention to.”
Saltery peddles more than just salt. It takes its hand-harvested salt flakes and infuses them with everything from coffee, raspberry and maple syrup to black garlic, onions and jalapeno peppers — creating more than 30 flavors in all. Specialty salts, she said, can enhance the look, texture and taste of a food item; her citrus salt works on fish, the pinot noir salt on steak and maple salt as a topping on popcorn, peanut butter or oatmeal.
“A pinch goes a long way,” she said. “It’s going to change your experience. Salt has been a sidekick for a long time.”
Worth its weight in salt
Salt has been used by humans for thousands of years, playing a vital role in not only seasoning food but enabling it to be transported over long distances and virtually eliminating the seasonal availability that comes with many items. As early as the 6th century, Moorish merchants in the sub-Sahara traded salt ounce for ounce with gold. Salt was referenced in the Old Testament, and it’s included in the phrase “worth its weight in salt” to signify value.
But more recently, salt has come under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Too much sodium has been linked to health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
“I’m trying to make salt the star of the show. As more consumers appreciate the source of their food and the quality of their food, they’re going to catch on to the fact that salt is an overlooked category they should be paying attention to.”
While sodium is an essential nutrient and is needed by the body in relatively small amounts, nearly 90% of people 2 years old or older eat too much of it, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency estimates more than three-quarters of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant foods.
Wesley McWhorter, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said adding salt is a good way to add flavor to food. Still, he suggests it’s better to build flavor throughout the cooking process from herbs, spices and other sources. Salt is best suited for the end when it will have the biggest impact after it comes in direct contact with a person’s taste buds.
“Food without salt is mute. ... I always describe salt as an enhancer of what is already in the dish and if you don't have anything there, it's not going to enhance anything,” McWhorter said.
As consumers watch more closely what they eat, individual CPG companies such as PepsiCo, Nestlé, Campbell Soup and General Mills have set their own salt reduction goals, which many have met and even exceeded. It also has opened up the door for some entrepreneurs to look for ways to curtail salt intake but maintain the flavor that many people covet.
‘Redefining the category’
MicroSalt, a 5-year-old company based in Florida, has created salt that achieves the same saltiness as the traditional offering but with half the sodium by reducing the salt particle by 100 times. The tiny particles, which look like baking powder in a bowl, dissolve almost immediately, delivering a higher sense of saltiness with less of the compound.
To prove its concept, the company created a line of potato chips last year. They’ve proven so popular that they are now sold in 2,000 stores, according to Rick Guiney, MicroSalt’s CEO. While he didn’t rule out further consumer products, Guiney insists MicroSalt is a salt company at its core.
MicroSalt has generated interest from several global snack and food companies, and he’s confident at least one of them will eventually sign on to use it. It takes time, he said, because of changes that need to be made to packaging, consumer taste tests, the volume of the salt the CPG would need to buy and the cost. MicroSalt is about three times more expensive than regular salt.
“We are redefining the category,” he said, comparing it to what Splenda did to the sweetener space during the last 20 years. “It’s been asleep for almost 20 years. Now, anything that has salt in it is a target for us.”
Smaller proprietors of salt at Expo East in September acknowledged that eating or drinking too much of anything, including salt, can be dangerous. Still, it hasn’t stopped them from targeting the category through gourmet offerings that command a premium through their unique flavor profiles and natural perception because they are typically not processed.
The gourmet salt market is projected to post a compound annual growth rate of 6.6% through 2027, according to Mordor Intelligence.
Unprocessed salt typically contains less sodium due to the presence of trace minerals, making them attractive to consumers who are trying to eat better or who are affected by cardiovascular diseases. These salts also tend not to be refined. This means they lack anti-caking or conditioning agents added during the refining process, and they retain trace minerals like magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium that are otherwise removed.
“A lot of our health issues have been for the fact that over the last how many generations we have been told not to eat salt, and people are not getting the right kind of salt in their diets,” said Charmane Andrews Skillen, the founder and CEO of s.a.l.t. sisters, a self-described health-focused company that creates rich gourmet unrefined salts mixed with black truffles, habanero peppers and black garlic. “It’s always moderation, but use the right kind of salt and it benefits your health, and the upside is that flavor.”
McWhorter downplayed some of the health benefits proponents have of unprocessed salt. In the case of minerals, for example, he noted that while unprocessed salt may have them, the amounts are minimal, meaning the mineral compound should be viewed more for its flavor-enhancing properties than its health benefits.
“If you're trying to get your mineral consumption from salt, there's already a problem there,” he said. “You have to be aware that it's still salt. You have to treat it as salt."
The gourmet salt category also is benefiting from the premiumization that has infiltrated other food and beverage categories. And with consumers cooking more at home following the pandemic, people have shown a willingness to experiment and discover ways to better replicate the fine dining experience they would have at a restaurant.
“As more consumers appreciate the source of their food and the quality of their food, which I believe is a movement, they’re going to catch on to the fact that salt is an overlooked category that they should be paying attention to,” Leedom said.