The Salt Conundrum

I was watching one of my favorite chefs on the Food Network yesterday. For some reason I was paying attention to the amount of salt added to what was billed as a “quick dinner for two.” Following the amounts of salt actually measured, and not including all the “pinches” of salt used to finish the dish, I counted four teaspoons of salt added to the meal. With all the “pinches” of salt it was probably closer to five teaspoons, or about one and two-thirds of a tablespoon of salt.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, a publication provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, the maximum intake of sodium should be about 2,300 mg per day, or the equivalent of how much sodium is contained in a teaspoon of salt. According to my calculations, the chef on the Food Network was providing her guest with about twice the daily limit of sodium in one meal. I am sure the food tasted great. I wonder how the guest felt a couple of hours after eating the meal.

We use salt to enhance the flavor of our food. According to experiments by the Monell Chemical Senses Institute in Philadelphia salt reacts with our flavor sensors in two ways; it reduces the reception of bitter flavors and enhances the reception of sweet flavors. The combination of these two reactions makes our food taste better. The reaction of salt is so important to our tastes sensors that in experiments where sugar was added to increase the sweetness of a dish, when added in the absence of salt, the taste testers were not able to detect much of a difference in sweetness. To enhance the sweetness salt was necessary.

The sodium we take in from salt is a necessary part of our diet. Sodium is necessary to carry out many of the important functions of the body including transmission of impulses along our nerve cells and the contraction and relaxation of muscle tissue. Too much sodium causes the retention of fluid in the body. This can lead to swelling of the extremities and pressure on the heart. In the extreme it can lead to high blood pressure.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Your taste for salt is acquired, so you can learn to enjoy less.” As we add more and more salt to our diet our taste buds crave more and more salt. This leads to a perfect example of a feedback loop, and a potentially deadly one at that. Cutting back on salt gradually will actually reduce your craving for it. If you add more fresh vegetables to your diet and remember that many processed meats already have plenty of sodium in them (think bacon), then you will realize that adding all the extra salt really is not necessary.

When you do the sodium math it may surprise you that:

  • The famous “trinity” of cooking, the onion, carrot and celery you add to many soups, sauces and dishes contain 5mg, 40mg, and 126mg of sodium respectively. Before you add the salt to the pot you are already close to 10% of your daily sodium requirement.
  • If you cook with cheese you are adding a lot of hidden sodium. If you top your pasta with 1 oz of parmigiano reggiano, you are adding 532mg of sodium to your diet or about 23% of your daily requirement.
  • Prepared meats contain significant amounts of sodium. Bacon, Italian sausage, and any other prepared meats are loaded with sodium. For most of these items 3.5oz contain at least 1,000mg of sodium or a bit less than half your daily requirement.
  • Prepared foods such as mustard, ketchup, soy sauce, capers, olives and just about everything else contain all the sodium you really need. A tablespoon of mustard can contain 360mg of sodium. When you add a tablespoon of capers to the sauce you are adding 315mg of sodium.

While we want our food to taste good, we also want to keep our sodium intake to a reasonable level. In order to do this we can take some steps to accomplish both tasks.

Begin reducing your sodium intake gradually. If the need for salt is an acquired taste then gradually reducing your intake will gradually reduce your need for salt to enhance flavor.

  1. The use of lemon juice or lemon zest can trick the palate into thinking that you are using salt. The lemons do not contain much sodium.
  2. When using herbs increase the amount when cooking or add most of them at the end of the cooking process. The essential oils in herbs cook out very quickly. When you add them closer to the end of the cooking process you get more bang for your buck. Your palate gets overwhelmed with the herbs and does not miss the salt very much.
  3. Add some heat to the food. I find that spicing up the food with a little heat tricks the palate. A few red pepper flakes, a bit of chopped jalapeno, or a dash of cumin or curry can really confuse the taste sensors.

It is not necessary or desirable to remove salt from your diet. Your body does require a certain amount of sodium to continue to function properly. By being aware of the sodium content in the ingredients you use and by gradually reducing the amount of salt you use in cooking you can reduce your sodium intake to a level that is less likely to affect your health. The over salting of food you see on the cooking shows is a sign that these chefs have become used to enhancing flavor with salt. This is not an especially creative cooking method. You can enhance the taste of food and reduce your salt intake with a bit of creativity. And remember; you can always add a bit of salt at the end of the cooking process if you think it is needed. Once added to the pot the salt cannot be removed.

About the Author