A WHOLE LOF OF SHAKING

Salt may be shaking its bad reputation.Category sales have begun to flatten out after a decade of steady decline, and specialty salts, such as kosher and sea salt, are drawing attention to the category again, according to retailers.Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., has noticed an increase in its kosher-salt sales, said grocery buyer Duane Proulx."I've had requests for it in the last six months," he

Salt may be shaking its bad reputation.

Category sales have begun to flatten out after a decade of steady decline, and specialty salts, such as kosher and sea salt, are drawing attention to the category again, according to retailers.

Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., has noticed an increase in its kosher-salt sales, said grocery buyer Duane Proulx.

"I've had requests for it in the last six months," he said. "We used to just handle it in selected stores, and now it's become more of a demand item in areas other than the Jewish-community areas."

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that cutting back on salt does not lower blood pressure for most people. Though it's still early to measure the outcome of the study, salt might be on the road to recovery, retailers told SN.

"One day it's good for you, and the next it's bad for you," said Ross Nixon, vice president of merchandising at Dahl's Food Markets, Des Moines, Iowa. "Anything in moderation, even if it's good for you, is good policy."

At Prevo's Family Markets, Traverse City, Mich., Aaron Prevo, category manager, said consumer consumption of salt depends on demographics.

"We have some stores that are very health-conscious and some that really aren't," said Prevo. "We have shoppers who are on doctor-recommended diets, but we have certain markets where they don't care."

Since 1990, food-salt sales have increased each year, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Salt Institute, an organization that represents salt producers and tracks U.S. salt sales. In 1995 food salt accounted for over $180 million in sales, a 19.9% increase over the previous year.

Though food-store salt sales increased by 1.9% to $80 million in 1993 and by 4.5% to $83.8 million in 1994, they dipped slightly during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 6, 1995, according to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill. The entire category accounted for over $82 million in food-store sales, a $1.8% decrease. ACNielsen could not provide more recent sales figures.

But Akzo Nobel, Arnhem, Netherlands, manufacturer of the salt brand Diamond Crystal, has noticed some growth in the category, particularly in the kosher-salt segment, according to Catherine Bolton, director of corporate communications.

"When the salt scare happened years ago, there was a decrease in usage, but now it has gone up, and it has been pretty much level over the years," said Bolton.

"We do see an increase in sales and consumption in specialty salts. Our Diamond Crystal kosher salt is getting a lot of requests," she added. Last month, Akzo, whose North American corporate headquarters is in Clarks Summit, Pa., announced that it will sell its North American salt assets, including Diamond Crystal, to Cargill, Minneapolis. The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

Don Monroe, advertising and sales promotion manager at Morton Salt, Chicago, said it's probably true that more people are using salt, though he said Morton has no documentation of it. He added Morton has been promoting the fact that salt can be used outside the kitchen as well, such as to remove rust from household tools.

Kosher salt has the same chemical makeup as regular table salt, according to Andy Briscoe, spokesman for the Salt Institute. "It's basically evaporated salt that's gone through the blessings of the rabbi," said Briscoe.

But kosher is coarser than regular table salt, according to Bolton. "We have a special [manufacturing] process called Alberger. If you looked at it under a microscope, it would look like an inverted pyramid."

Kosher salt's uniquely shaped crystals make it a favorite of chefs because it adheres to food better than regular salt, according to Bolton.

"A lot of great chefs recommend using kosher salt, and now it's becoming something that consumers are aware of," said Bolton.

Draeger's Supermarkets, Menlo Park, Calif., has noticed a similar trend.

"We have a cooking school here, so we generate all the top chefs in the country," said Matt Buckman, Draeger's general buyer. "If they're using [an ingredient] in the school, then I find the sales increase proportionately on the floor."

Sales of specialty salts, both kosher and sea, have been on the rise at Draeger's, according to Buckman.

"Sea salt predominantly is getting a lot more attention, and kosher salt tastes better."

Quantity, as well as taste, might be part of the appeal of sea salt and kosher salt, said Buckman. "You use less and get twice the flavor," he explained, adding that sea salt is less refined than regular salt, so it has a saltier taste.

According to data from ACNielsen, fine, iodized and coarse sea salt realized sales gains of 13%, 23% and 13%, respectively, for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 9, 1995. During this period, their combined sales accounted for over $1.5 million.

The sea-salt process takes about a year to 18 months to complete because the water must be transferred into several different ponds until it becomes a concentrated brine and then crystallizes.

The end result is a product for which many consumers are willing to pay more, retailers said. At Draeger's, for instance, a 3-ounce container of sea salt from the Dead Sea retails for $17, according to Buckman.