Industrialisation has made many commodities extremely cheap, including salt. These days we eat more than enough salt for our dietary needs, probably more due to its presence in processed foods. However, salt used to be a precious commodity: it was used as salary and currency, salt mines provided lots of revenue.

Therefore it occurred to me that pre-industrial peoples may have consumed very little salt, since it was so expensive. On the other hand, salt is also an essential nutrient. Although hunter-gatherers may have sufficed with no added salt by getting it from animal foods such as seafood and blood, moving to a grain-based diet would have meant some amount of salt was necessary.

How much salt intake did people in agricultural, pre-industrial societies have?

1 Answer 1


Good question, but the problem of an answer will be that the salt was the most important food-preservation method before fridges. So it is hard to say how much people ate, maybe a good starting point could be how much could they afford. And the answer is most probably: a commoner couldn't afford much.

source: Salt
1350's, Venice

Typically, Venetian merchants bought salt for 1 ducat a ton, and it cost them about 3 ducats a ton to ship it to Venice. There they received a State subsidy of 8 ducats a ton. The State collected a tax as the salt left Venice, and after shipping to the customer, the selling price was roughly 33 ducats a ton.

A venetian ducat contained roughly 3.5 grams of Gold which means a ton of salt cost 115,5 grams of Gold. Sadly I didn't manage to find Venetian data, but in 1300's by this source in England a typical labourer expected 2 Pounds Sterling yearly (672 gr of silver which roughly worth back in time 42 grams of gold). We can calculate that a labourer's full year salary worth 364 kg of salt.

Let's compare with the current prices, in US you can buy a kilogram of salt anywhere for less than a USD while the yearly salaries are usually over 30.000 USD

To be realistic, people could afford way less salt back in classical and medieval ages. It was more dependent on if the person lived physically closer to the source of the salt or not, or suffered heavy taxation which was implemented by French, Roman, Venetian and many other governments through history.

I would assume there are better sources than I found I am looking forward for a better answer than mine.

  • 3
    Note 1: The English word salary derives from the Latin sel through the French sel because Roman legionaires serving in the provinces were so frequently paid their wages in salt. This attests to its value at distances from the sea coast. Note 2: Extant recipes from Ancient Rome are a marvel in the flavouring qualities of lead salts, which were widely used in the Empire and sometimes credited/blamed for the collapse of said Empire as well as the fertility disorders that plagued its richer citizens. Oct 2, 2014 at 22:09
  • 1
    This begs the question: were salt-preserved foods historically considered a luxury? I'm inclined to guess that they weren't, but if that's the case why weren't they? Oct 3, 2014 at 3:07
  • @ssdecontrol: I don't see how that could make them more valuable than fresh foods.
    – user2110
    Oct 3, 2014 at 6:24
  • 1
    @RickyDemer it is hard to imagine today because we have refrigeration, an edible thing is surely more valuable if it is available when fresh food isn't. I mean imagine you are a medieval person in the middle ages, and you would like to eat some meat, you have two choices, go out in -20 degrees and try to hunt something with shaking cold hand or just grab a salty meat from your basement... if it is a free choice, it is obvious which is better. Oct 3, 2014 at 8:55
  • 1
    @CsBalazsHungary that's actually the opposite of what I meant. But RickyDemer makes a good point in that it needs to be compared to fresh food. And other preservation methods (drying, preserving in vinegar or oil) were probably more common as well. Oct 3, 2014 at 14:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.