Preservatives in Food: Characteristics of Salt

Preservatives in Food: Characteristics of Salt

Preservatives in food (salt, sugar or vinegar)

With focus on salt

Preservatives in food (salt, sugar or vinegar)

Preserving food has been part of human culture and a way to store food since ancient times.

Our ancestors used different techniques or processes for food preservation so that they could protect

food from microorganisms, bacterial growth for future consumption. The main natural preservatives

used were and continue to be (among others): salt, sugar and vinegar by the method of pickling, curing

and sugaring. Salt speeds the drying process by osmosis and prevents the growth of bacteria. For

pickling, as an example we use vinegar which kills and inhibits bacteria and other microorganisms.

Whereas earliest civilizations used to preserve fruits by immersing them in honey.

For our project the main focus is going to be salt and its characteristics, as well as its history and impact

on human health.



CLUSTER A: Element Profile

Sodium (Na)

Element Name Sodium
Element Symbol Na
Atomic Number 11
Atomic Mass 23
Period # 3
Group # 1
# Protons 11
# Electrons 11
# Neutrons 12
Electronegativity 0.93
Melting Point 97.79C
Boiling Point 882.94C
Number of Isotopes 20
Radioisotopes 2


Sodium is an Alkali Metal. When it becomes an ion it loses an electron and becomes a cation with a

charge of +1. It can be part of polyatomic Ions such as NaOH. It has 20 isotopes and 2 radioisotopes,

22Na and 24Na. Sodium is a soft silvery white metal which is a good conductor of electricity. It can float

on water. It has low ionization energy. It is the 6th most abundant element in the earth crust. It is used

in road de-icing, producing glass, paper, soap and textiles.

CLUSTER B: Compound Profile


Sodium Chloride (NaCl) – Salt



Sodium chloride or salt is an ionic compound made up of 1 sodium and 1 chloride ions which is small,

transparent, and colorless to white cubic crystal. It is solid at room temperature and odorless as well.

The melting point for solid sodium chloride is 800.70C and a boiling point of 1465oC. The molecular

weight is 58.4428. The weight percentage of Na+ is 39.34% whereas Cl- is 60.66% in the compound .The

ions of Na+ and Cl- are very strongly attracted to each other that only highly polar solvents such as

water can dissolve NaCl well, otherwise it is insoluble or slightly soluble in most other liquids. When

dissolved in water, sodium chloride disintegrates into Na+ and Cl- ions surrounded by polar water

molecules. The pH of NaCl is approx. 7 which makes it a neutral compound.

CLUSTER C: Connections

Both, the element of sodium and the molecule sodium chloride are integral part of salt. Basically

salt is sodium chloride and vice versa. Sodium on the other hand as an element is widely known as a

component of salt and in many instances people mistakenly use them interchangeably.

Other elements and chemicals that are part of the topic are:

a)      sugar C12H22O11, also known as sucrose (saccharose, a saccharide) which is made in different

plants such as beets and sugarcanes,

b) vinegar, which consist of acetic acid CH3COOH created from fermentation of ethanol by bacteria.

Among these substances, salt is my favourite as it has, in my opinion, a simple yet elegant and powerful

formula as a compound which can be used to explain atomic bonding as well as other chemical

processes in clear, easy to understand fashion.

That is the reason why we’re focusing more on Na and NaCl for the purpose of explaining and providing

information about salt.

CLUSTER 1: History of Salt

Salt has been part of human life and history since ancient times. Salt can be obtained either

Through mining or evaporation of seawater. Over millions of years rain, rivers and streams have washed

over rocks containing salt or sodium chloride compound and carried that to the sea, which is the

explanation as to why the sea and ocean water is salty. Salt’s history with humans goes as far back as

6050 BC, it has been recorded 4700 years ago in ancient Chinese writings which described more than 40

types of salt and two methods of extracting salt which are similar to what we still use today. Humans

have used salt for thousands of years from food preservation, which was a founding contributor to the

development of civilization, to seasoning.

Early civilizations understood the importance of salt and its availability was crucial to their prosperity.

Every empire throughout history has sought to control it and even use it as currency, sometimes worth

more than gold . The Natron Valley supported the Egyptian empire by supplying it with a kind of salt that

came to be called natron. The Phoenicians proved themselves to be masters in extraction and trading of

salt. It was the Romans that took all of that to a higher level of production and trade through a

worldwide network. Ships bearing salt crisscrossed the Mediterranean Sea, caravans crossed the dessert

from Morocco to Timbuktu, then to Libya and beyond. Venice become wealthy by trading salt with

spices from Asia in Constantinople. The Latin roots of words such as “salary”, “soldier” are connected to

salt as related to giving or receiving it. In the early years of the Roman Republic, roads were built to

make transportation of salt to the capital easier, notably Via Salaria (Road of Salt), which connected

Rome to Adriatic Sea as it had higher salinity than the Tyrrhenian Sea, much closer to Rome. Salt was

such a precious commodity that Greeks and Romans used salt to buy slaves which spawned the phrase

for when someone is not worthy then that someone is “not worth his salt”.

During the Middle Ages, various superstitions surfaced around salt. Spilling salt was considered bad

omen, so the spiller had to throw a pinch of salt over his left shoulder because the left side was

considered sinister, where the bad spirits congregated. We see this in Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece

“The Last Supper” where Judas is shown with a dropped saltcellar in front of him.

The gabelle, the French tax on salt from 1286 -1790, was widely hated and was one of the main

contributors to the French Revolution. Whereas in the 16th century a Dutch revolt against King Philip II of

Spanish Empire was successful when they blockaded the Iberian salt works which led to Spanish

bankruptcy. It is also recorded that thousands of Napoleon’s troops died during their retreat from

Moscow as they wounds would not heal due to lack of salt.

Moving closer to home, salt has played an important role in North American history as well. The Erie

Canal, opened in 1825, was mainly built to ease salt transportation, which made many refer to it as “the

ditch that salt built”. In the American Civil War, salt was so important that The Union Army fought a

fierce battle in 1864 to capture Saltville, Virginia from the South, which created a salt shortage in the

Confederate states. In Canada, Windsor Salt is more than a century old.

CLUSTER 2: Reaction Profile


In this part we going to have a brief look at various reaction profiles of our compounds.

2 Na (S) + 1 Cl2(G) → 2 NaCl (S)

Sodium chloride’s formed through a chemical reaction called synthesis



Sodium chloride is a strong electrolyte as it completely ionizes when dissolved in water.

When it comes to sugar, dissolving it in water is a physical reaction as we have no chemical change in


In terms of vinegar, an interesting chemical reaction to mention is with baking soda, as it occurs in two


In general we have,

NaHCO3(s) + CH3COOH(l) → CO2(g) + H2O(l) + Na+(aq) + CH3COO(aq) or another way of writing it:

NaHCO3 + HC2H3O2 → NaC2H3O2 + H2O + CO2    which goes through

a)NaHCO3 + HC2H3O2 → NaC2H3O2 + H2CO3  —- here we have double displacement reaction to form

sodium acetate and carbonic acid

b) H2CO3 → H2O + CO2 —– Carbonic acid being unstable, undergoes decomposition reaction and

produces carbon dioxide gas


CLUSTER 4: Implications for Human Health

As we mentioned before, salt has been part of human life since ancient times. It helped our

ancestors preserve food, cure hides and heal wounds. There has been a lot of debate regarding salt and

its health effects on human health. Lately salt has been cast as villain when it comes to hypertension and

heart disease. But evidence shows that salt can be both beneficial and harmful depending on use

(amount)of salt.

When it comes to its harmful side, too much salt can raise blood pressure (which the leading

cause for cardiovascular disease), increase chance of a heart attack or stroke. Studies have shown that

high salt intake might be responsible for stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, as well as

damage to stomach lining and growth of bacteria which in turn might lead to inflammation and stomach

ulcers. That’s why many health authorities recommend a daily amount of no more than 2300 mg of

sodium a day.

But what happens if we take to little salt? There is some evidence that shows that might be harmful as

well. Low salt intake has negative health effects such as:

  • High LDL (bad) Cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Increased risk of dying from heart disease and increase risk of dying for people with heart failure.
  • Increases insulin resistance.
  • Increase risk of death in people with Type 2 diabetes.
  • Reduced hydration, especially in athletes.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Headache & Weakness.

Salt is an excellent source of electrolytes and helps prevent muscle cramps. It helps thyroid function

properly. It is a good remedy for gum disease, infections, mouth sores. That’s why when we go to the

dentists they recommend salt water rinses as they promote healing and help with tissue inflammation.

Recently, some researchers are recommending that health authorities not issue blanket guidelines for

the general population as the salt intake recommended levels vary from people to people. For example,

the traditional Japanese diet is very high in salt intake, but the Japanese have low rates of cardiovascular

disease and the highest longevity in the world.

However the debate regarding salt and its health implications goes, salt will remain with us for a long

time, giving flavor to our daily meals.


Food preservatives are important to our daily lives, as they’ve been to the lives our ancestors.

They have helped human civilization evolve and progress, as well as make our food tasty. This project

helped me learn a lot more about the science behind them, the history and health implications on

humankind. This paper is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but rather a brief insight

into it with a main focus on salt as a food preservative.


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