Thoughts For Food

Insights into the Mind of a Culinary School Student

Food Bites: De-Mystifying Salt

Hey guys! A little while ago, I wrote an article for the school newspaper about salt: how it’s bad for you and how it’s good for you. Let me know what you guys think!

De-Mystifying Salt

There is a war going on, unseen by the majority of the American public. It is a war between the FDA and the food industry, and it’s a war that has been going on since 1978. It is the war on salt. An element that is so essential for life is now under fire for its supposed role in causing strokes, kidney failure, heart disease and hypertension (high blood pressure), just to name a few. With all this frightening information being published so recently, it’s understandable that people are very scared about salt and its harmful effects. However, this is where misinformation comes into play. Many people may become misinformed about salt and think that it is really bad for your health, while ignoring its key health benefits, which are many, varied and stretch back throughout human history. Armed with that knowledge, it’s time to bust some salty myths.

Sodium-Chloride (salt, of course) has had a very important role in the history of humanity, dating back thousands and thousands of years. At one point salt was worth more than gold and was highly sought after in ancient times. It was a preservative as much as it was a seasoning agent. Before the advent of refrigeration, meats and other perishables were salted to prevent them from spoiling. It would seem, however, that even with modern refrigeration technology, major food companies today are adding enough salt to their food like it was the Middle Ages again, and this has raised some red flags in the FDA.

According to the FDA and other small, independent research firms, salt has been linked to many serious health risks. It is estimated that salt contributes to at least 100,000 high blood pressure-related deaths a year. The FDA report goes on to say that because salt is considered a safe food ingredient and that peoples’ palates have become so accustomed to high amounts of salt, people no longer know what is a safe amount of salt. A fact made all the more dangerous with certain processed foods having double and even triple the recommended amount of salt for a human, and with processed foods making up 75-percent of the sodium we consume, it seems that we are quite literally eating ourselves to death each and every day. Despite all this, however, companies are hesitant on lowering the levels of salt in their food products. Why? As Michael Moss writes in the NY Times: “…they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.” Consumers, as well as companies, are to blame. A 1979 internal memo from snack company Frito-Lay states: “Once a preference is acquired, most people do not change it, but simply obey it.” So who’s to blame? Everyone. What’s the solution? Information.

There seems to be a growing trend in the “salt war;” misinformation. People and research companies either intentionally or unintentionally overlook the health benefits salt has, in favor of the health risks salt poses. For example, the sodium in table salt actually reacts with the potassium in human bodies to generate the electricity that drives the central nervous system. Any drop in sodium could prove disastrous to human bodies. In addition, sodium is key in holding water in the body, keeping the body hydrated longer (a key bit of information when you are stranded at sea). Most importantly, “salt makes food taste like itself,” as TV personality Alton Brown has said. Without salt, many foods we enjoy today just wouldn’t taste the same, and what do companies do to cover for the lack of salt? Increase the amount of sugar. Finally, health risks such as hypertension are often hereditary. In short, if you have a family history of hypertension, lay off the excessively salty foods. These facts seem to be swept under the proverbial rug every time the salt debate comes up. The best answer for all the salt-based health questions is moderation. If people just monitor what they eat and make sure that they drink more water than they consume salty foods, then they’ll be a-ok.

Moderation and good information are key to debunking the myths and scare tactics that arise in this war on salt. Take them to heart and we may very well get out of this war with our health, and food, intact.