Feb 11 2011
By Brona Cosgrave (@bronacos)
” …undersalting shows either a political extremism in the kitchen or a lack of taste.”
Salt has a fascinating history and as an essential ingredient for life, it has played an integral role in the development of global trade and culture. Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt: A World History is a highly recommended read.
At times culinary culprits like fat and carbohydrates have taken center stage, but ever since the 1970’s when medical science first cited connections between high salt consumption and a growing list of serious ailments from high blood pressure, obesity, heart attacks and strokes to kidney problems and diabetes, there has been a raging debate about how much one should consume (or dare I say enjoy) daily.
Last year, I noticed the culinary vs. health debate appeared to be getting ready for an encore! Food blog posts about cooking on Himalayan salt blocks (slabs of solid salt about 2 inches thick which you place on a heat source and then place the food on top) started popping up and there was much talk about finishing salts. Novelty stores like the The Meadow, Portland, OR was the talk of the last IACP conference there and had since spanned the country and opened a second in New York City and a book Salted, A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral by selmelier Mark Bitterman. At the same time nutrition blogs and medical sources were once again citing salt as the big ‘no-no’ in the American diet and mainstream media once again picked up the story with the New York Times covering the topic extensively.
“To salt or not to salt that is the question…”
Salt is often described as a contradiction onto itself; it brightens yet also softens flavors. It rounds out the both a natural sweetness and heat in foods. It will both extract and add moisture, for example by rubbing salt into eggplant, cucumbers and zucchini, the bitter flavors is drawn out. On the other side of the equation, brining with salt adds moisture to animal proteins by osmosis and results in a juicer more flavorful meats. Chefs and gourmands alike consider salt the miracle mineral – it’s transformative!
On the other hand, the medical world and groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the American Heart Association have been lobbying for decades to have salt declared as an ‘additive’ rather than recognized as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) as it currently is.
What is the problem with salt and health? The consensus is that the culprit is not natural salt added to fresh food, but rather, sodium compounds that are added to preserve and season manufactured products and processed foods. To add to the ongoing fray the federal government’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans released two weeks ago do not change their recommendations for salt intake. They state that healthy adults and children ages two and older should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day and adults over 50, or those with certain health conditions should consume up to a 1,000 mg less than this.
The Dietary Guidelines encourages consumers to “Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.” Well okay but… what about the salt in the brine solutions pumped into chicken breasts to juice them up or the salt used as a preservative in breakfast cereals, canned foods, etc. As the average American consumes up to 3,400 mg of sodium per day with as much as that nearly 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from processed foods and restaurant meals, it is hard to make sense of such “bland” statement.
Recognizing this dichotomy between the realty of the average American diet and government health policy, the Institute of Medicine concluded that “the current focus on instructing consumers to select lower-sodium foods…cannot result in intakes consistent with public health recommendations.” Studies recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Annals of Internal Medicine estimate that reducing average sodium consumption by as much as 1,200 mg per day could prevent up to 92,000 deaths each year and save more than $30 billion in medical costs by 2050 which suggests that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and her direct call to food manufacturers to reduce salt levels in their products may actually have more impact on the nation’s well-being than any federal policy guidelines.
Images from Sunset Magazine, Gawker and Natalie Cheung