It’s more than a sad day. It’s a genuine wake up call, to boot. Today is the day I’m resigned to going without some of my various sea salts. Why? Well, to quote Mr. McGuire from The Graduate, “One word – Plastics.” Yes, you heard me right – Pretty much all the sea salt out there is infested with the shit.
We started to hear rumblings about this last summer, when a bunch of articles came out in popular media. I decided to look to source material, and I gotta say, I’m not at all thrilled with what I found. It’s rather interesting that the majority of news pieces I looked into quoted one study, ‘The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries,’ from the journal Scientific Reports. That vehicle is owned by the Nature Publishing Group, who “highlights its editorial policy as one that is focused on scientific rigour and validity, rather than perceived impact.” Scientific Reports, in their FAQs, states further, “Scientific Reports publishes original articles on the basis that they are technically sound and scientifically valid, and papers are peer reviewed on these criteria. The importance of an article is determined by its readership after publication.” Of course, how you feel about the validity of that process and philosophy has obvious bearing on the perceived validity of the works published therein.
I looked at several studies from various academic sources, to achieve what I felt was a good balance of findings. Across the board, the news was indeed rather dire – sea salts from all over the globe are contaminated with microplastic fragments, fibers, filaments, and films. Studies from the U.S., Europe, Asia, China, and South America all reported the same thing, with remarkably similar findings of the volume, nature, and origin of the contaminants. Dr. Sherri Mason of the University of Minnesota lead one such study – Her synopsis was simple and to the point – “All sea salt—because it’s all coming from the same origins—is going to have a consistent problem. I think that is what we’re seeing.”
So what, exactly, is this stuff? Naturally it varies somewhat, but not as much as one might think – The ubiquity of it is alarming. Microplastics are micrometer sized pieces, (A micrometer is 3.937 × 10-5 of 1” – meaning it takes 25,400 of those to equal an inch – The symbol for a micrometer is μm.) These are very tiny shards, fragments, and fibers, which speaks volumes about just how much plastic has broken down to pieces this small, all around the world. Sobering, isn’t it? It’s not just the giant trash island in the Pacific, it’s that microscopic shards infest every ocean, coast, and to some degree, lakes, rivers, and even wells. Polymers, pigments, amorphous carbons – Polypropylene was the biggest contaminant, followed by polyethylene and cellophane – No big surprise there, huh?
Study samples averaged roughly 500 – 700 particles of microplastics per kilogram of salt. The Scientific Reports piece was bold enough to state that, “According to our results, the low level of anthropogenic particles intake from the salts warrants negligible health impacts,” while adding the caveat, “However, to better understand the health risks associated with salt consumption, further development in extraction protocols are needed to isolate anthropogenic particles smaller than 149 μm.” AKA, we can’t measure stuff smaller than that accurately with our current test methods, and we got no idea how much or how harmful smaller stuff might be. For my mind, their statement sidestepped the well established fact that plastics are excellent absorbers and carriers of all kinds of hazardous substances. I had to switch a daily medication recently, because the stuff I was taking, (which is made in China), had a highly carcinogenic industrial solvent in it – A substance not allowed in the US or EU, and that shouldn’t be anywhere near a pharmaceutical manufacturer. If that happens, how much of a stretch is it that tiny shards of plastic could harbor things that are absolutely not good for us? Not much, far as I’m concerned.
We all know how out of hand plastics are on this earth. Plastics infest every facet of the planet at this point – Land, sea, inland waters – Everything – affecting humans and wildlife every bit as much as our environments. Leachate from plastics has been tied to cancers, birth defects, inhibited immune systems, and disrupted endocrine systems, for starters.
And how well do we handle the stuff? A recent study published in the journal Science Advances, lays claim to being, “the first global analysis of all plastics ever made.” And the verdict? How about this, “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.” Ouch – And we’re not getting better at that, by the way. As former second and third world countries ‘advance’, they not only aren’t interested in dealing with first world trash any more, they’re generating epic volumes of their own. So 90% of over 8 billion tons of plastic, (and counting!), goes where? Landfills, and all too often, the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams, and so on. Plastic in landfills can take a thousand years to decompose – Hell, those plastic bags we use for veggies from the store last at least a decade, and as long as a century depending on where and how they’re disposed of. And water bottles? How’s five hundred years grab ya? Like I said – It’s sobering, when we’re staring at real world numbers.
So now we come to sea salt, and why it’s so susceptible to microplastic contamination. The answer may seem obvious to some, not so much to others. Most sea salts, including the legendary stuff like Fleur de Sel, San Francisco, Malden, Trapani, or Sal de Anana, to name but a few, are produced in shallow impoundments, where sun and wind gradually evaporate the sea water, leaving behind salt and their signature minerals and elements – And microplastics. It is these long produced, famous named varieties that are most impacted, and at greatest risk. For me, as much as I love the distinct flavor profiles of great sea salt, it’s all just too much – I’m not willing to use it any more, or put it in blends, or recommend it to y’all.
Are there salts relatively free of plastics? Yes, thankfully, there are. The difficulty, in many instances, is knowing exactly where the salt you buy comes from. Take a famous name, like Morton – They’ll divulge that they produce salt from the three primary methods – Natural Evaporation, Mining, and Vacuum Evaporation. Most salt producers do the same, but getting more specific than that can be a bit more difficult. Morton produces sea salt “from the sparkling waters of the Pacific,” and from “the Mediterranean,” (Both of these are sun evaporated salts, so guess what…) Mined salts are relatively plastic free, as the ancient beds they derive from haven’t been exposed to plastic contamination. The same should be true for most vacuum evaporated salts, depending, of course, upon the salt source, but again, that’s not always easy to discern. Many of the latter are well-based processes, and while there is evidence of plastic contamination in wells around the world, it’s at a much lower rate than sea water. The bottom line is that, currently at least, the vast majority of non specific-origin salts divulge exactly where they come from or how they’re produced.
So, how does one know one is buying mined salts, which would be the most plastic free option? Cargill Corporation, which produces and supplies bulk salt to many brands, mines from Avery Island, Louisiana, among other sources – so product from that source would be quite safe. I think that the bottom line is that us end users will need to do some research, including contacting the consumer affairs departments for a given brand or brands, if we want to be assured as to the source of their salt – And they may or may not tell us what we want to know.
Must we then be resigned to giving up the unique flavors we’ve come to know and love from great sea salts? The answer is – thankfully – no. There are known source, mined sea salts that are plastic free. Here in the States, Real Salt comes from Utah, where it is mined from an ancient seabed that existed through the Midwest in the Jurassic period. Buried under many layers of rock, soil, and volcanic ash, this is about as pure as you can get, and it tastes great to boot – They produce coarse, kosher, fine, and powdered versions, in everything from a small shaker to 25 pound bags.
Hope springs eternal – May we wake up and start addressing the problem whole cloth – If it’s not already too late.
NOTE: As always, I give reviews or recommendations because I like what I write about. I don’t receive anything free, discounted, or in exchange for a favorable review here.