Bob del Grosso sent me the link to this article in Scientific American on salt by Melinda Wenner Moyer and I read it with a sense of finally.  Increasing evidence that nobody really knows what they’re talking about when they’re talking about salt, except that it has different effects on different people.

Given that its fundamental to our existence (without it we literally die) and that it helped to create both stable stationary societies and world travel (food preservation and therefore surplus in a community or on a ship), our main failure would be to undervalue its importance and power.  It is powerfully good and useful; but also, anything so powerful can be used harmfully (as in our processed foods).

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Page 29 of Charcuterie, written unabashedly in 2005

Since there is so much uncertainty (read Ms. Wenner Moyer’s husbands interview with food authority Marion Nestle for more on this), and that a definitive understanding of its effects are unlikely anytime soon, there’s only two things we can rely on: common sense and our sense of taste. Because salt is so important, our bodies are very adept at regulating it. If something tastes too salty, that’s bad for you, your body is telling you so.

 

Salting to taste is an important skill and the only thing you need to consider (there’s even a good cookbook that uses this dictum as it’s title). We probably need less salt as we get older. Your body will tell you so. That’s part of the common sense. The other part is to avoid processed food, where salt hides and slips unrecognized into your body. Cook your own food, season it with salt to taste, and that’s about all you need to concern yourself with.

Leave the dithering to the politicians who want to regulate what we can and cannot eat (how about working on peace, solving hunger issues, getting us out of debt, encouraging new businesses and jobs?).

Cook your own food.

Here’s the meta-analysis mentioned in the Moyer article. Meta-analyses are notoriously squishy; this one comes from a good source.

And more on the confused data:

Harvard School of Public Health: Flawed Science on Sodium from JAMA

Low-Salt Diet Ineffective, Study Finds. Disagreement Abounds.

 

More great links:

 

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

 

 

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24 Wonderful responses to “Salt Sense”

  • jim w

    i loved michael symon’s demo in aspen last year (sure he has done it elsewhere, it looked choreographed), where he demonstrated how much salt he was using in making chicken vs. how much salt was in a can of soup. i knew all the numbers already, but seeing one pile next to the other was eye-opening.

    • Mark

      Honest question about the demo, does he equate the mg of salt in the pile to the mg of sodium in the soup? If so, that’s kind of misleading since salt is not 100% sodium. Even a high-sodium can of soup is only 1100mg of sodium which is a half-teaspoon. Confused?

    • Phillip

      I looked all over for that demo, can you provide a link please?

  • BG

    Isn’t a large portion of the problem with processed foods is Sodium, which isn’t in and of itself salt, and doesn’t taste salty, but is a preservative? It sometimes doesn’t have enough salty flavor, but it has a very high sodium content.

    • Mantonat

      I don’t think anyone’s adding pure sodium to prepared foods. For one thing, isn’t pure sodium very unstable? Anyway, the reason alot of prepared foods don’t taste overly salty even though there’s a ton of sodium is because there’s also a ton of sugar. Other preservatives/flavor enhancers also contain salt or sodium (like MSG). For example, you may see soy sauce as an ingredient, but the salt in the soy sauce is not listed separately.

  • Zalbar

    I heartily agree with the sentiment of cooking your own food. Our western life is now so full of stuff that people continually say they have no time to cook. Those that make an effort lack basic skills to prepare anything. It’s a disheartening situation. I honestly cannot remember the last meal I cooked that took me over 40 minutes. A lot of it is like doing laundry. I don’t stand over the washer waiting to toss the clothes in the dryer.

    A lot of my evenings rollout like the following:

    6:30 p.m.Come home and take off shoes while turning the oven on to 340.

    6:32 p.m. Take chicken (thighs, legs, whatever) out of fridge and put on counter.

    6:35 p.m. Put rice in pot, add water and put on stove on high.

    6:40 p.m. Put chicken on a baking sheet, season and throw in oven.

    6:43 p.m. take boiling pot of rice off the stove, put a lid on it and set aside, put another pot with water on the stove in it’s place, add salt.

    6:45 p.m. check email, scan headlines, delete spam mail

    6:50 p.m. drop vegetable of choice into water

    6:58 p.m. take vegetables out and drain.

    7:05-7:10 p.m. Take chicken out of stove, sniff the wonderful roasted meat smell.

    7:11 p.m. Plate on counter, rice with a grind of black pepper, dollop of butter, chicken on the side and veg.

    Dinner is served, and damn that may have been off-topic but I had to get that out.

  • Tags

    I guess we could substitute heroin for salt, but soon we’d be back to adding more and more (to distinguish our food from that of other cooks) as people get used to it.

    We might as well stick with salt.

  • karen downie makley

    I shun most processed foods as I would a deadly poison. And when I make my own food, I DO trust my palate and instincts on seasoning with salt. Despite my use of salt, and despite the fact that I come from a long line of hypertensives, my blood pressure is 112/70. I’ll gladly omit salt when cooking for others if they insist, but if anyone gives me any guff about my own personal use of the stuff, I happily tell them to “go pound salt”

  • Matt

    Reading both of the Scientific American pieces, your take on it, Marion Nestle’s “addendum” in her blog post on the subject (as well as past blog posts of hers; as an aside, its really quite good reading), and random bits of things I’ve read over the years, what I took away was not that we should stop freaking out about salt in our diets, rather:

    (1) Yes, we need sodium to live, and salt is about 40% sodium and serves as our primary source of the nutrient we need.

    (2) Yes, salt is an excellent preservative – without it, we wouldn’t have a lot of delicious foods, nor the civilization that we enjoy today.

    (3) No, we don’t need *as much* salt in our diets as we currently consume. The current dietary guidelines suggest that the upper limit for sodium at around 2.3g/day. On average, Americans over age 2 consume 3.4 g/day.

    (4) As I read Nestle’, I understood it to be too difficult to discern between “high salt” and “extremely high salt” diets – and that’s why the data has been inconclusive (in addition to other intervening factors like genetics).

    (5) It is in the nature of scientific progress that nothing is ever definitively proved (e.g. hypothesis = “too much salt is bad for you”), rather that a theory stands until it is conclusively disproved, which hasn’t yet happened in this instance.

    (6) Cooking our own food – i.e. avoiding restaurants and processed foods – is an excellent way to control our intake of everything, including salt. (And to eat better food while we’re at it!) As Nestle’ points out, 80% of salt in the American diet comes from processed foods and restaurants.

    (7) We develop a tolerance to salt; the more of it we use, the less able we are to taste it, leading to a vicious circle of more and more salt.

    So, all of that taken together leads me to believe that salt is good, but like everything, should be consumed in moderation. Cooking our own food is the best way to go, and making a conscious effort to reduce (not eliminate) salt would probably help a lot of people, and almost certainly hurt none.

  • DJK

    “Leave the dithering to the politicians who want to regulate what we can and cannot eat…”

    Does it really seem to you that, when left to do as we please, we’ve collectively made choices that are anything but awful? (And harmful…and irresponsible…and unsustainable…)

    Asking for regulation/discouragement to be more sophisticated than “Salt is bad, mmmkay?” makes plenty of sense to me. But thinking our obesity rates aren’t a crisis worth addressing? Not so much.

  • Natalie Sztern

    took to the Salt Institute home page and by golly I loved the Salt Guru. It was later in life that I learned what, who, how and why there exists Kosher Salt and it is nothing like the salt my mother cooked with. The one answer I cannot find though, is why, more women than men tend to blame salt on their water retention. Is it really salt that makes our fingers swell so that we cannot put on our rings – that and question 2 why are there times I crave salt? These are questions I cannot find answers to.

  • Adam

    For a really great and interesting read on the subject, check out “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky.

    • Tags

      Agreed, and ditto for anything else written by Mark Kurlansky, a top shelf guy.

  • Nan W.

    The worst part about going through breast cancer treatment was the messed up taste buds. My family would stare aghast as I poured WAY too much salt on my dinner. Luckily, that passed and I can trust my taste buds once again to tell me the right amount.

  • Brad McNeal

    I think if I avoid eating ready-to-eat food that comes in a bag, box or wrapper, cook most of my meals, only very occasionally succumb to the fast food urge I’ll be ok. My cardiologist says “zigzagging”, following that rare urge, will keep me from going off the deep end completely; after awhile that processed stuff loses its satisfactory taste. Its been 11 years since the need for that Doc , all the numbers are great..I cook with kosher and finish with some nice Brittany sea salt..no worries.

  • J.T.

    Don’t forget. The Native Americans lived without direct intake of salt in their diet and they thrived! It seems to me, and i aint no authority, that salt from a natural source (ie. the Ocean, the desert) in moderation must be O.K. What do you think?

    • Mantonat

      Salt is salt regardless of the source. It’s all NaCl. Some of it may have slightly more trace elements which means the flavors might vary depending on the source.

      Also, all meats and many vegatables and grains contain sodium, so it’s probably not that difficult to fulfill minimum daily requirements of sodium without actually adding pure salt. Pre-Columbian societies may have also gotten additional sodium from natural sources of potable water and from concentrated foods like dried meats.

      (Not that I’m arguing against adding salt to food.)

  • Anna

    I was glad to read the Scientific American article, too, and to have them explain the problems with the studies that have influenced our thinking on salt. I wish our (and by “our”, I mean “ours as a culture”) thinking on foods, in general, could stop being so absolutist; i.e. no more “salt is bad”, “fat is bad”, “carbs are bad” etc. Salt is one of the most basic parts of our food and it is nuts that for so long it has been categorized as “unhealthy”.

    More than anything, it bums me out when people cook without salt because they’re just not getting the most out of their ingredients and it’s a real shame.

  • David

    I love salt. I was born and raised “southern” and use too much. I don’t usually over-salt when cooking, but definitely reach for the shaker at the table. I have one grown son that never adds salt to his food – we think he was switched at birth.
    It is good that research and common sense is determining that salt is not “the enemy”.

  • Ian Wainwright

    Nan W.
    The worst part about going through breast cancer treatment was the messed up taste buds. My family would stare aghast as I poured WAY too much salt on my dinner. Luckily, that passed and I can trust my taste buds once again to tell me the right amount.

    amen

  • Gezza Schuab

    Hi Michael! Pleasure to be in your blog, facebook, accept me as a friend I am Brazilian, and I loved your blog! Have a cooking blog called: Recipes and flavors or by gezzer link: gp-sch.blogspot.com.
    A kiss in the heart! Efique with God.

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