Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Pure and unrefined"

An article in today's New York Times hit a nerve, a chemist's nerve, in particular.

The article relates the delights of sea salt from the west coast of France.  Lovely stuff, for sure, but the understanding of what constitutes "purity" in the author's mind is peculiar.
Every grain, every crystal, is cultivated naturally, harvested by hand and marketed pure and unrefined.
So, if it's unrefined, it cannot be 'pure' salt at all.  The fact that it's unrefined means it's contaminated (and I don't mean that in a bad way) with other compounds.  Good contaminants, tasty contaminants, beneficial contaminants, mind you, but contaminants nonetheless.


 Author Elaine Sciolino then goes on to describe their process for harvesting gray salt:
Every other morning, when the weather is right, they harvest gros sel marin gris, or gray coarse sea salt, a moist and coarse salt that collects on the lining of the clay ponds, gray from the nutrients that sit in the clay.
The combination of a hot sun and a soft dry wind is needed to cause the perfect level of evaporation in the shallow, rectangular artificial clay ponds whose water level they control with a system of pipes leading to the sea. 
Collecting salt water using sea water piped in from the ocean into man-made clay ponds doesn't exactly scream "cultivated naturally."  In fact, it's quite technological in nature.  Picking a piece of fruit from a tree might be "natural."  Setting up a clever system for getting salt out of sea water isn't "natural" in any sense of the word. 

We also find out from the same paragraph that the "nutrients" in the salt that make it gray come from the clay ponds, the man-made clay ponds.  So, the contaminants in this "pure," "natural" salt come from letting sea water extract other salts from the clay in the the man-made clay ponds.  The so-called nutrients aren't even in the sea water to begin with, but in fact are added, albeit passively, to the water.  Natural.  Uh-huh.  

It's this kind of sloppiness in thinking that really pisses me off, and I expect more from a good reporter for a good newspaper.  This is a topic of interest to me because it sits at the intersection of food and chemistry, and it demonstrates profound ignorance on the chemistry side. 

Go head, mention "chemical-free" laundry detergent.  I dare you. 

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