May 22, 2013

Morton Salt Facts

Difficult to imagine a barbecue without some salt for the ribs, burgers, and fries. Also difficult to think of Morton's Salt without thinking of the umbrella girl (when it rains it pours).

During the 1880s, Joy Morton invested in a Chicago-based salt company. Salt was big business in those days, largely fueled by the demand of the explorers and pioneers who were settling the American West. Salt is a critical component of any diet and throughout history has been critical to various types of food preservation.

Salt is hygroscopic, which causes it to absorb water from the air around it. When water is absorbed, the salt tends to clump. Morton's solved this problem in 1911 by adding an anti-caking agent, magnesium carbonate, to its product. It also put the salt in a cylindrical package to aid in keeping water out.

Morton hired an advertising agency to put together a marketing campaign to promote the anti-caking properties of his salt. The ad team came up with a long list of marketing plans. Morton’s son chose the umbrella-wielding girl, accidentally pouring salt in the rain. The illustration epitomized wholesomeness, innocence and the value of Morton salt to pour easily, even if you are standing in the rain.

The additional ingredients did help, but salt still tended to clump and people put a few grains of rice in salt shakers to absorb moisture. Salt producers often add trace amounts of iodine to salt to prevent iodine deficiency, or folic acid to reduce anemia, both of which are a serious problem around the world. Today there are more than a half dozen common additives to reduce clumping, reduce health defects, and add flavors. About 17% of all salt production is used for food. The bulk of the rest is used in manufacturing, dyeing, and in soaps and detergents.

Judas Iscariot is depicted knocking over a jar of salt in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper. Spilled salt was considered a bad omen and still is for some people.