Why Salt Sucks

I consider salt one of the most dangerous, addictive and unhealthy food additives out there.

Zillions of prepared and manufactured foods contain artery-bursting amounts of it. And salt appears prominently in the ingredients list of a frighteningly wide range of foods, from breakfast cereals to, believe it or not, Ben & Jerry's ice cream. (I'm totally serious about the Ben & Jerry's--take a look for yourself!)

And of course, in practically every dinner table in homes all around the world, a little shaker full of the stuff sits at the ready, so we can add still more salt to our food.

Sure, salt is an important nutrient--in small doses. We should be consuming it in daily quantities that are a fraction of what you'd get from a mere handful of Doritos. The truth is, a diet with generous servings of fruits, veggies and legumes will contain sufficient sodium for the average person. That means you don't need to add any extra salt to your food at all.

However, because salt is so overused in so much of our food, most of us have unknowingly adapted to consuming far too much of it.

Hyperpalatability
But first, let me ask a question to readers: Why do you think salt is overused in prepared and manufactured foods?

Sadly, one of the primary reasons is it makes you want to eat more.

Essentially, salty food begets a desire for more salty food. That salty kick from your very first Dorito simply makes you want another. And it's why food companies design their foods--even sweet foods like ice cream and cookies--with high salt levels. Adding extra salt is by far the easiest and cheapest way to make any food hyperpalatable.

And of course it's no coincidence that when you eat more, the food industry sells more. Please keep this in mind the next time you reach into your wallet to pay for that extra-large bag of overpriced, branded salty snacks.

Too Loud
But there's still more behind the overuse of this highly palatable seasoning. Because salt is such a "loud" spice, it drowns out other, more subtle tastes. And because it's so easy for the human brain and human palate to adapt to salty flavors, overly-salted food quickly conditions your palate away from being able to detect and enjoy these subtle flavors and tastes.

Thus, the more salt you consume, the more bland and tasteless regular food becomes. Unfortunately, most consumers end up completing the circle by biasing their diets and tastes towards still more salty foods as a result.

Believe it or not, there's some good news buried here in this post, and here it is: Sure, the human sense of taste quickly adapts to salt. But, thankfully, it can also just as easily adapt away from salt. So how do you resist the siren call of sodium chloride?

Shock Therapy
First, take a leap with me here, and try to go a full week without salt. That's right: one week. Seven days. It's not that long!

Take a break from salty snacks, and avoid any food that lists salt or sodium chloride prominently in its ingredients. Take a break from restaurant food, which is the primary source of some of the most oversalted, hyperpalatable food out there. And, obviously, remove your salt shaker from your dinner table and hide it somewhere.

For the first day or two you'll experience an interesting paradox: everything will taste like nothing! Be patient and don't lose heart. Within a few days, your palate will begin to de-accustom itself to sodium. It will return to how it used to be and how it should be: sensitive to subtlety and a wide range of tastes and flavors. You'll start to detect flavors and tones in food that weren't apparent to you before. For lack of a better phrase, you'll begin to hear the soft notes of your food once you remove the deafeningly loud taste of salt.

This process may take a while, and it might involve an adaptation period where food appears to taste comparatively bland, but believe me, this process is truly worth it.

Why? Because, regular, normal-tasting food is actually really good. And it's a sheer pleasure to enjoy eating without having to face down overly salted, hyperpalatable foods. You won't find it quite so difficult to fight off the urge to overeat, and you'll derive that much more pleasure from natural, healthy food.

Before you know it, you'll have developed a much more sensitive palate. Foods that once seemed boring will taste and feel more complex, more subtle and more interesting. And salt itself will finally become what it really is: a loud, excessive flavor that's massively overused in restaurants and throughout the food industry.

Readers, what's your take on salt? And have you ever gone on a salt fast?

Related Posts:
How Food Companies Hide Sugar in Plain Sight
Mindful Chewing: How To Cut Your Calorie Intake in Half--Without Feeling Hungry
How to Resist Temptation and Increase Your Power Over Food
Who Really Holds the Power in Our Food Industry?

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24 comments:

Julia said...

I assume you read the article in the NYTimes this weekend about salt and the food industry...
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/health/30salt.html?scp=2&sq=salt&st=cse

I agree with you that American eat too salt and have been desensitized to its flavor but I take two exceptions to your argument:
1. Restaurant food is not nearly as salty as prepackaged food. I'd argue that Americans get most of their salt from the processed foods. And when I say restaurants, I don't mean McDonalds or other fast food chains. I'm talking about restaurants that prepare *real* food.

And based on the article in the NYTimes, the main reasons for adding such high levels of salt is for preservation and to mask the flavors of the other chemicals. They did an experiment with Cheezits, trying to reduce the salt. They didn't just taste less salty, but the texture was mushy, they tasted bitter and the shelf life decreased substantially.

That being said, I've often considered giving up salt for a few days because I know am completely addicted and would like to reduce my salt intake. And I very little by way of processed and no fast food.

Jin6655321 said...

I do agree that a lot of restaurant oversalts their food. There are lots of places that I won't go to because, every time I do, I feel like I've pickled my insides.

That being said... I love salt. I usually find salty to be obnoxious and unpleasant but salt itself is so wonderful. It does such a great job of making things taste more like themselves... If that makes sense...

I was really surprised to read an anti-salt post on a food blog but it did give me something to think about.

Anonymous said...

My biggest frustration with watching cooking shows on TV is the requirement for what seems to be handfuls of salt. The chefs have to 'season every layer', resulting in, in my opinion, too much salt. I would love to see challenges/contests/shows that judge on the real taste of food, not how much salt has been added.

Anonymous said...

Is salt the bad guy or is it the assorted sodium-containing substances that are used in processed food, like MSG?

I totally agree that processed food (whether from the grocery store or a restaurant) is too salty tasting, but also that a little salt on real food helps with the flavor.

Thanks for highlighting this issue.

kittiesx3 said...

I have gone without salt--I was on the Pritikin diet for a while which is a pretty strict diet: no salt, no sugar, no fat and very little animal protein. And yes, my palate shifted.

The problem for me was that it was very difficult to continue with that eating lifestyle and still have a social life. So I don't follow it any more. Also, I do love salt :-)

Daniel said...

Julia,
Believe it or not, I queued this post up a week and a half ago and had no idea that the NY Times was about to steal my thunder! Although I'm addressing the subject from a different angle.

Interesting to hear how salt masks the flavors of other chemicals. I can confidently say that any food requiring salt to mask other chemical tastes doesn't sound like a terribly desirable food in the first place.

Regarding restaurants and salt use, I really think it depends. We've been to restaurants (both expensive and not so expensive) that use exhorbitant amounts of salt. And I have yet to find any restaurant that uses less salt that we use at home when we cook. Of course I totally agree with your point about fast food and salt use.

Jin: happy to give you something to think about. I still would encourage you to try a salt fast at some point. You might be shocked at how amazing unsalted food tastes once you've acclimated to it.

Anonymous: the answer is, it's both. And no, I don't object to the use of a little salt at all. I think my quarrel with the packaged food and restaurant industry is over the definition of "a little."

Kittiesx3, thanks for the insight. I didn't touch on the social aspect of avoiding salt, or for that matter the social impact of any highly restrictive diet, because it would have been beyond the scope the post. But yes, it's an issue, and thanks for raising it.

Great comments so far. What do other readers have to share?

DK

Diane said...

Yes, but if you don't eat processed foods - and I don't (or very rarely), then some salt is needed in our diets. It's not bad for you in reasonable amounts. Humans have used salt (fish sauce, soy, etc) for thousands of years, and it is critical for flavor balancing.

And frankly, I'd much rather have a tsp or two of salt in my big pot of dal, than a handful of doritos in any case.

JS said...

You leave out that companies add salt to cover for poor quality ingredients will very little flavor. It's a very cheap way to generate taste in food.

The reason there is so much in prepackaged food is it's often buried inside where you can't even taste it. An equivalent amount on the outside would be a shock to your tongue. What you put on at the table is a pittance compared to what is in packaged food.

Cynthia said...

Daniel,
I know first hand how much salt is out there. Last year my husband got conjestive heart failure at 34. The number of restaurants we can eat at (staying within his sodium limit) is 5. And that's only if he orders very carefully. Being on a 1000mg per day has made us both lose weight and it really has changed the way we eat and see food. I can drive down the road and smell salt from the fast food places. If either one of us has too much salt (we are just craving something we shouldn't eat and partake) we will have burned mouths and be rather ill for the next 4-5 hours.
Over salting of our food, both at restaurants and at home is killing us. But that being said you have to have 500mg per day or you will get very sick and in some cases die.
I really recommend the No-Salt cookbook by Donald Gazzaniga if you really want to cut down the salt.

Melissa said...

Obviously, as an informed cook and consumer, I am appalled at the amount of sodium in processed foods and drinks and in most restaurant food.

However, as a salt tooth, I refuse to give up salt entirely in my cooking. I will say I have become very careful with it. One of the reasons is my husband. Steve is really sensitive to oversalting in a way almost no one else I know is. So his tastes, and his feedback on my dishes, have made me cut back severely.

The chili I made over memorial Day? The quick jambalaya I make as a favorite weeknight meal? My broccoli soup? All made with no salt. I can avoid it most nights. But for some things, no way. Like I just can't see making those homemade tortilla chips or homemade popcorn without a sprinkling. Or my steaks or burgers. Mmmm much too good with the salt on it, sorry!

Carol said...

Thanks for this post. Heart disease runs in my family. My brother was, in fact, told to raise his children without letting them taste the stuff! So I use far, far less than most people. At a restaurant lately, I found my dinner salty, while my companions dumped salt even on their salads. I've been in a position where I did need salt, having been very, very active during very hot weather, but such occasions are rare. I do use a *little* more than usual during very hot weather, but normally don't add it at the table, and add it very sparingly during cooking. I figure that if the people I'm feeding really want it, they can add it, but I'll be sure to glare at them while they do so.

wosnes said...

In contrast to what Carol said...I have severe CHF. My cardiologist told me he didn't care how much salt I used in cooking or at the table (within reason, of course) as long as I avoided processed foods. I determined on m own that most restaurant food should be included in this because very little is made from scratch. The only time I have any problems is when I eat processed foods.

Processed foods account for nearly 80% of our salt intake.

I realize his advice is rather radical, but it's working for me. I will be on anti-hypertensive meds for the rest of my life (they reduce the workload of the heart as well as lowering BP). Recently I had to have the dosage lowered because my BP was too low (70/40).

I'm a nurse and I've worked in an area where most people are on anti-hypertensives. Most still eat large quantities of processed foods -- including various "healthy" foods. My BP is significantly lower than theirs.

I have a hunch that processed foods are responsible for the majority of our health problems.

Rich and Col said...

Hi Dan - I agree so much with the last post (wosnes). If you put all of your posts in a pot, simmered over a gentle heat and reduced down to one message, it might be: "don't eat processed foods". I realise people have different lifestyles and family circumstances, where perhaps the pressure of TV or other advertising on children, for example, is irresistible, but adding salt to food that you cooked yourself for flavour purposes is perfectly acceptable. It's when you give up this control to others that the diet suffers.

Daniel said...

I hear you Rich, and that's a great way to put it.

I guess my point on salt fasting is that once you get used to a diet that's really low in salt, processed foods stop tasting good to you. They start tasting like... salt. Thus it becomes easier to avoid them.

And of course the use of modest amounts of salt in food you cook at home is totally fine.... especially if your palate is conditioned away from salt. Thus a little salt will go a long way.

As always, thanks for being a part of my audience.

DK

chacha1 said...

I couldn't agree more. Getting used to food without salt means, first, that you learn what food actually tastes like; and second, that subsequently food that is over-salted is obnoxious to inedible.

I almost never add "salt" to my cooking. I do use soy sauce occasionally. Mostly I use red spices and herbs. This has been fun and educational for me, and good for DH who has a family history of high BP. We also use a fair amount of cheese, some of which carries a pretty high sodium load.

However, I am not going to start making my own vegetable lasagna when Michael's is so good and easy. :-)

NMPatricia said...

Just catching up with my blog reading and came across this. Thus a little late comment. But just got back from a trip to Hungary and Croatia. We found the food to be incredibly salty - more so than over here. UG! One person on the trip observed that it might be in reaction to the fact that nearly everyone smokes over there. Possibly that the taste buds have been dulled and they "need" the salt.

Daniel said...

Patricia, interesting point. And I'll say the same about our recent four month stay in Chile. They just love salt there and it's in all the food. And, frankly, when we got back, we had to de-condition ourselves.

PS: No comments are ever late! I still get comments from some of the earliest posts here at CK--there's always time for more open-minded thoughts.

DK

Anonymous said...

can you link us to the NYT article? sounds interesting...

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous:

Here you go.

DK

Ashley Daoust said...

I've struggled this for a while now. My mom has a chronic illness that, among other things, causes her to be sodium-deficient on a regular basis. When her doctor prescribed sodium tablets, she asked if she could just salt her food heavily instead. So I grew up being accustomed to lots of salt. My dad, by contrast, (they divorced long ago) cooks with very little salt, if any. When I was little I would dread eating meals at his house because they were so bland and flavor-less. (It didn't help that his primary seasoning is black pepper, which was on my picky-eater list as inedible.)

After moving out on my own (and away from the college cafeteria) I've paid good attention to the salt I add to my cooking. I make at least 90% of what we eat, so it's easy to monitor the things I put into it. It was much easier to adjust to cooking with less salt when I discovered spices - and flavorful meat marinades.

I have the Ben&Jerry's ice cream recipe book, and the only recipe that has salt is the chocolate ice cream base. It does make a difference in bringing out the chocolate flavor, and it's not a huge amount (I think I use a pinch of salt per quart of ice cream). Not surprising at ALL if their commercially-made stuff has a higher salt content across the board, though I can't imagine what amount of sweetener might go into the sweet cream base to cover up a salty flavor in there!

Daniel said...

Great insights Ashley, thanks for sharing. I think the bottom line is, once you begin to cook your own food and can thus exercise some degree of control over what you eat, then you can really free yourself from the salt-conditioning that our palates tend to have from eating processed food.

DK

Autumn609 said...

I really try to avoid processed foods as much as possible, and I enjoy cooking from scratch. I am amazed at how much salt goes into foods watching shows like top chef, and then having the "judges" complain that it was "seasoned" correctly. And the close ups of the giant boxes of morton kosher. . .

But there is one very good use for salt. Besides making roads safe to drive on in winter here in MN. . . it can reduce your gag reflex. My gag reflex is pretty strong and a trip to the dentist can be heave inducing, until my hygenist poured about a tsp of regular table salt in my hand and had me lick it between x-rays. Made all the difference, and I think I drank a gallon of water afterwords.

Daniel said...

Autumn, that thing about the gag reflex is a new one to me. Wow. Go figure.

DK

Jenni said...

I'm one of those people who use salt in everything. I think it is vital and that it brings out the flavor in everything from soup to nuts, as it were.

I am the Ambassador of using salt in desserts (okay, self-proclaimed, but still) and write about it pretty extensively on my blog.

And, yes, I put salt in my ice cream base, and in my creme brule, and pound cakes and in *everything* I make. A judicious amount, mind you, and I eat very few processed foods and rarely go out to eat. When used in a reasonable manner, I think salt brings out the nuances in food rather than masking them.

Sounds like we are polar opposites, and that's cool. It takes all kinds! :)