Salt in the UK tends
to make the headlines for one of two reasons – either
we have too much of it, or too little.
Column inches dedicated to "too much" salt
generally refer to stern official health warnings about the
amount of salt in human diets, while the "too little" reports
tend to centre on fears that the UK might run out of road
gritting salt in the depths of harsh icy winters.
production consists of rock salt, extracted from mines,
and white salt, produced from vacuum or solar evaporation
(source: Superior Salt).
These issues refer to different kinds of salt: white salt
produced through vacuum evaporation of brines is the food grade
material (a bracket which also includes sea salt) of which the
public is often told it is consuming too much; rock salt, mined
from underground salt beds, is the de-icing type spread on
According to the UK Salt Association,
there is enough salt in UK mines to last for the next 800 years
or so, based on current production levels. Other than de-icing
and food, salt’s main markets are water softening
and chemicals, but its range of applications is vast.
"Salt is one of the most ubiquitous
minerals there is," Peter Sherratt, secretary general of the
Salt Association, told IM. According to widely
quoted estimates, there are more than 14,000 uses for salt.
The Salt Association represents the
interests of rock salt and white salt producers in the UK and
has been around for about a century. "We have records dating
back to the 1920s and believe it was formed a few years before
that," says Sherratt. The association’s members
include salt miners – Compass Minerals, Cleveland Potash (now
owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd) and Irish Salt Mining; vacuum
salt producers Ineos and British Salt
(now owned by Tata Chemicals Europe); and distributors Peacock
and Wilson Salt. Collectively, these companies produce about
99% of the UK’s salt output.
Sea salt producers, of which there are a
handful in the UK, account for the remaining 1% of domestic
salt output, but do not belong to the Salt Association. "These
companies consider their products to be value-added and
distinct from rock salt and white salt," Sherratt explains.
Both white salt and sea salt are about 99.7% sodium chloride
(NaCl). "The only difference is that sea salt has larger
crystals, meaning it tastes saltier because the flakes last for
longer on the tongue".
The Salt Association’s main
purpose is to represent the views and objectives of the UK salt
industry. It also ensures that all its members adhere to the
letter and spirit of UK and European Union (EU) competition
law. "We avoid any topic that could be construed as
anti-competitive and have deliberately stopped conversations on
these grounds. We are very careful to avoid any possible
criticism on this point," says Sherratt.
The UK salt market
According to Sherratt, the salt industry
the UK is in a comfortable state of equilibrium. "The UK market
is very much in balance – it consumes near enough all
of the 2-3m tpa of salt it produces." There is very little
import and export activity because salt is a low value
commodity and the transportation costs make it uneconomical to
trade it internationally. "You get a bit here and there, but
for the most part the industry is domestically self-contained,"
Outside variations in seasonal demand for
de-icing salt, the market is fairly stable. The water softening
market is steady, as is consumption of white salt generally,
according Sherratt. Other applications like salt licks for
animals still generate some demand but these are not growing
Three consecutive cold winters in the UK
in 2009, 2010 and 2011 saw panic set in at government level,
fanned by alarmist press reports, that the UK
didn’t have enough de-icing salt to keep the
country’s roads open.
Sherratt says that the situation was
exaggerated to some extent. "Although there were some local
shortages, we never actually ran out of salt – but we
came pretty close," he says.
The reason for the shortages was because
local councils had moved to a "just-in-time" supply system for
de-icing salt, Sherratt explains. "So when a larger quantity
than usual was needed, they found they couldn’t
The apparent crisis in rock salt supply
served as a wake-up call to the government and measures are now
in place to prevent future scarcities. "If we have a hard
winter this year, we are not going to run out of salt,"
Sherratt confidently predicts. "We have a lot of material in
council warehouses and a lot at the mine heads. We also have
greater output from UK salt mines, which have moved to better
efficiency and continuous mining practices".
The government also invested in importing
strategic stockpiles following the spate of hard winters, some
of which were, as Sherratt diplomatically puts it, of
"differing standards" to those adhered to by UK salt producers.
This was one of the driving forces behind the implementation of
the Salt Association’s Salt Assurance Scheme,
SaltAS – a quality guarantee which assures users that
their salt supplies meet all the relevant quality standards for
All UK Salt Association members are
certified under SaltAS and the association hopes that the
scheme will spread to international suppliers and create an
international quality benchmark for salt products.
Perhaps the most controversial issue
relating to salt in recent years has been the question of salt
levels in human diets. The mineral is an essential element in
human biology. Every human cell contains salt, adding up to
around 250g in the average human body. It performs vital
functions in digestion and hydration and salt levels are
regulated by the kidneys.
|The UK Salt
Association disputes official advice on salt intake and
has called on the British government to review the
science (source: Dubravko Soric).
However, an increase in consumption of junk and processed
foods means that average salt intake is on the rise and a
number of studies have linked elevated salt consumption to
conditions such as osteoporosis, kidney disease, vascular
dementia and high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to
heart disease and strokes.
The Salt Association disputes some of the
official advice on salt and points to other studies that
question the evidence of the long-term health benefits of
restricting salt in diets.
According to official NHS guidelines,
adults in the UK are advised to limit their salt intake to 6g
per day – a "nonsense statistic", according to
Sherratt. "[The 6g figure] is not based on any agreed credible
scientific study and, with 250g swilling about in the body,
[which is] designed to conserve salt when it is in short
supply, the idea that a gram more or less is likely to bring
the system to a halt is difficult to support," he states.
The Salt Association has formally
requested that the British government review some of the
science around salt’s role in human diets. "We are
not afraid of the science and would welcome a genuinely
impartial review," says Sherratt. However, the most recent
official response from the UK Minister of Public Health, Jane
Ellison MP, has been that the government has not seen anything
to change its guidance on salt intake.
Sherratt concedes that the anti-salt
rhetoric has receded slightly in recent years, however. This,
he says, is because "the public is bored with the subject and
increasingly takes food scares with 'a pinch of
A full version of this interview will
be published online and in print in
IM’s October 2015 monthly