(Originally posted in Sensorium, March 10 2014.)
The labels are everywhere on supermarket products. “No added salt”. Or “Reduced salt”. And it’s common knowledge why that is.
Salt—which used to be so highly prized—is now considered mighty unhealthy.
So why does my small and limited local supermarket stock a whole range of different kinds of salt? I can buy the regular iodised kind, sea salt flakes, and preloaded grinders filled with exotic varieties including pink Himalayan, blue Persian, smoked Cyprus and black Cyprus. That’s a lot of choices of something as elemental as salt.
And why is “salted caramel” found everywhere from ice cream to macarons, brownies, sauce. (If you don’t believe me, this Something Swanky blog page has over 75 variations on the theme.)
And what about the over-the-top craze for bacon? Is that all about salt, too?
Let’s look at this.
First, why does salt make food taste so much better?
The immediate answer is that we need salt and, therefore—as with sugar—we have developed a taste for it.
Most of all, we need the sodium in salt, which works at a cellular level within our bodies, helping to regulate the water balance, as well as helping our nerves and muscles to work.
Without salt, we would die. According to Barb Stuckey in her book Taste, “We have evolved to crave salt to ensure that we eat enough sodium to sustain life” (p. 177).
But our bodies can’t hoard excess sodium: “Without a way to store excess sodium in our bodies, we have to make sure we get it from the foods we eat or drink” (p. 177).
Salt is loved for its own flavour, and also because it enhances other flavours. As Stuckey puts it: “We consider a chicken soup more chicken-y if it contains salt than if it does not” (p. 177).
Chef Joshua Skenes from the San Francisco restaurant Saison, told her:
We look at salt not as something that you can just throw on food to make it taste good, but as something that pulls the flavors and extracts the flavors from food. You don’t want to taste salt … you want to taste the ingredients. You want to salt the food so that you can taste the most natural purity of the flavour in the food to the fullest possible extent but not taste the salt.” (p. 177)
Salt also helps food release its aroma during cooking, which certainly heightens anticipation and adds to the flavour experience when the food is in your mouth (Stuckey, p. 182).
Salt has another important taste effect, one called mutual suppression. If you sprinkle a little salt on a grapefruit, it tastes sweeter. Stuckey explains:
When you add salt to food, it suppresses “bad” tastes, such as bitter or sour. But salt isn’t as punitive to the “good” tastes of sweet and savoury. Salt releases the desirable flavours from suppression by the bitter or sour tastes … (p. 181)
How do we taste salt, anyway?
The physiology of tasting salt is not yet understood; the receptors have not been identified. It appears that salt—and sour—flavours pass through membranes known as ion channels, which Stuckey says are difficult to study, and may also cause people to mix up salty and sour sensations (p. 51).
Why are we told to limit our salt intake?
Well, the Victorian Government’s Better Health site tells us that: “The average Australian consumes around eight or nine times more sodium than they need for good health.”
Another credible website, Why Salt Matters, is associated with the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Research Institute. It points out that too much salt “causes or aggravates over 20 salt-related health problems”, and claims that at least half of Australia’s adults already have health issues linked to salt.
So what is the suggested limit?
In Australia, the recommended amount of salt per day for an adult is 4 grams of salt per day, which equates of 1,600 milligrams of sodium—approximately a teaspoon of salt.
But—given that we may eat nine times more than that—the Heart Foundation advises that a good first step is to reduce daily intake to 1½ teaspoons of salt.
If we are eating too much salt, where does it come from?
“Around 75 per cent of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods”, says the Better Health site.
Journalist Michael Moss writes in the New York Times:
Salt and dozens of compounds containing sodium—the element in salt linked to hypertension—have become omnipresent in processed foods from one end of the grocery store to the other.
Packaged foods often have salt added because, as Stuckey tells us, “Salt is … cheap, so it’s a way to add more flavor without having to add more of the expensive ingredients …” (p. 183).
Moss’s 2010 article “The Hard Sell on Salt”, reveals the many ways that salt is crucial to processed foods. Kellogg’s Cheez-It cracker, for instance, is an “iconic” snack food:
Salt sprinkled on top gives the tongue a quick buzz. More salt in the cheese adds crunch. Still more in the dough blocks the tang that develops during fermentation.
Kellogg demonstrated to journalists that salt-reduced versions of Cheez-Its and other top selling foods lacked consumer appeal:
The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal …
They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavour in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.
Then why has salt become such a gourmet item?
Certainly the different kinds of salt add different things to food. For most of my life, I haven’t added salt to my food, either when cooking or at the table. I just haven’t felt the need.
But in the past couple of years, I have discovered the light, instantly dissolving flakes of sea salt and often—not always—sprinkle a little over my meal. It does taste different to regular table salt and I prefer that newly discovered taste.
I guess that “gourmet” salt raises salt’s reputation. From being considered a despised, unhealthy item used in foods that don’t “require you to think too much about what you’re eating”, as Stuckey puts it (p. 183), salt becomes something to be appreciated by a discriminating palate. A palate that is trained in nuance and familiar with the products of exotic places like Cyprus and the Himalayas.
And I know it sounds pretentious, but I think it’s far better that we notice and appreciate salt, rather than gulp it without paying attention to its contribution.
What about bacon?
Hmmm. Bacon is cured in salt and is a high-sodium food. I guess its combination of fat and salt make it something to eat sparingly if at all.
But I’ve just read about The Streaker, 200 grams of “grilled thick-cut bacon … dipped in maple syrup and cayenne pepper, served on a skewer” at Major League baseball games at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
It might sound delicious: salty, sweet, spicy, fatty, all at once. But this “snack” has 1,800 calories. (The US recommended daily intake for adult male is 2,700 calories, so the “snack” only leaves 900 calories for the day).
And its estimated sodium content is 1,500 milligrams. (That’s just under an entire day’s allocation, so the rest of the day’s food better be low-sodium.)
It’s hard to see The Streaker as “gourmet” food. It’s more like an extreme sport.
• I know that the appeal of bacon isn’t any one factor, but its saltiness is part of the whole enticing experience. Do a Google search on “bacon weaving”.
• And then look at these high fat, high salt inventions on the Dudefoods blog. I’m ashamed to say that I’m drooling.
• And I apologise: here’s some more about bacon, an article titled “Is It Possible to Love Bacon too much?”
My question after looking at all this is: what exactly is it that makes people so obsessed with bacon and ever-increasing levels of bacon worship?
• A sensory exercise from Barb Stuckey’s website, linked with permission. Try this simple experiment and learn about mutual suppression.
• Read this post in Sara Kate Gillingham’s blog TheKitchn, and learn about being a salt gourmet. She recommends using three categories in the kitchen: table salt, salt for cooking, and finishing salt, in “Sea Salt. Kosher Salt. Crazy Expensive Salt. What’s the Deal?”.
• Watch this: “What’s the Difference between Table Salt and Sea Salt?”, a short New York Times video.
• Peruse the many types of salt available for sale on-line at Gewurzhaus, in Carlton, Melbourne and now in other locations as well.
- Barb Stuckey, 2012, Taste: What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to why Good Food Tastes Good, Free Press, New York.