The salt question

September 10, 2008

Salt is an essential item in the kitchen. It’s used to cure meat and fish by drawing out excess moisture; to make yummy pickles of all kinds; to provide underlying flavour when cooking potatoes, rice and pasta; and, to draw out undesirable bitter flavours from foods such as eggplant. It’s also a vital ingredient in bread making as it prevents yeast from growing out of control. Put quite simply, as a culinary ingredient, this mineral is worth its salt!

Although eating salt is necessary for our bodies to function, health problems such as hypertension are also associated with the intake of excessive amounts of salt. So, how much is too much? Research shows that many of us eat about twice as much sodium as the 0.5 to 1.5 teaspoons our bodies require each day to function. That said, not all people are equally salt sensitive. What’s harmful to one person’s health is not necessarily a problem for someone else.

We’ve all heard blame for our salt-related health problems assigned to modern eating habits. It’s often presumed that since our ancestors didn’t consume packaged and fast foods they ate less salt. Not true, according to Michele Anna Jordan, who in her book Salt & Pepper (Random House) writes:

“We consume much less sodium chloride than our ancestors did. In the Middle Ages, foods were bathed in salt. Meat and fish preserved in it were the common centerpieces of a meal — this was before refrigeration, before manmade ice; how to preserve the kill, if not with salt? — and more salt was added at the table… Twenty grams a day — about 2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt — or more were commonly eaten.”

I write this post not to quibble with modern medical recommendations for salt intake, but to underline what I think is the #1 problem with health and nutrition reporting today: It seems that for every piece of advice that there’s a counter piece of advice from an equally credible source.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of spending so much time thinking about what I should and shouldn’t eat. In fact, I think the stress of sorting through all the messages I read each day could impact my health more negatively than any mistakes I might be making when I just cook dinner using wholesome, fresh foods.

What do you think? Has nutrition news ever caused you confusion?