The salt question

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?

14 Responses to The salt question

  1. Beth says:

    I’ve actually felt fed up on a number of occasions. There is so much hype about certain ingredients and then the pendulum swings the opposite way. Like eat low fat. Now, it seems carbs are the problem and that fat is okay in moderation. But then the fat issue is worse still: for years were heard don’t eat butter, eat margarine….and now it’s eat butter instead of hydrogenated margarine.

    I’m with you. I’ve been trying just to eat whole foods from nature in moderation. If that strategy got us to this point in history, it can’t be too faulty.

  2. Brian says:

    Really great post on one of my favorite topics as well-salt!

    I’ve always been a heavy salt guy but as of the past 2 years I’ve broadened my use of it in curing meats and even to the extent of salting home brewed beer to give it unique flavors. To sume up, I’m with ya-lifes to stressful and busy nowadays to freak over every piece of salt I put in our food…live and eat in the now😉

    Cheers!
    Brian

  3. Cheryl says:

    This is a charged issue for me since I write regularly about nutrition for national media, but I do think there’s a lot of fad-based reporting out there. As with all else, buyer beware. If a study has 25 people in it and was sponsored by a for-profit company, it shouldn’t carry the same weight as a 2,500 person, double-blind , placebo-controlled study at a major university.

    As for salt, I think you hit the nail on the head: some people have to be careful, others slightly less so. Cook with whole foods, salt when you like, and go from there. Your doctor should let you know if there’s a problem with your bloodwork and then you can modify your behavior accordingly.

  4. danamccauley says:

    Cheryl, you make good points. I, too, often have to write about nutrition and I make an effort to choose reference research that is good quality. Despite that fact, I know that what Beth says is true, too. 20 years ago when I first started writing it was all about low fat, now it’s about moderate certain quality fat intake, whole grains and meat as a garnish.

    I know that the science of nutrition is evolving but somehow we all seem to forget that as soon as a new study comes out. We (and others) report this new news and often don’t balance it out with other studies that add perspective and temper the messages.

  5. David says:

    Since I mostly do my own cooking, know how much salt I’m consuming. It’s when you buy pre-packaged foods where the amount becomes a big question mark. Plus I’m a big fan of finishing salts (like fleur de sel or flaky sea salt) strewn on top. You get much more “bang for your buck” when you use salt that way.

  6. giz says:

    Good common sense needs to prevail. I’ve learned to measure the benefit/effect of sodium in my diet the hard way. If I know that I’m allowed approximately 1400 mg of sodium per day and I look at the ingredient list and it says that the product I’m looking at has 900 mg in it (i.e. canned soups), it just makes sense to me that I wouldn’t want to knock nearly my complete daily sodium intake on one bowl of soup. The old “knowledge is power” expression helps me not to be pressured by the media but to manage my own health in a proactive way.

  7. I don’t like salty foods and whether or not it’s good for me, am tired of eating dishes that have been ruined by too much salt. I can add it myself and often wonder if the chef is hiding inferior ingredients by over-salting.

    I rarely used tinned or prepackaged items and so don’t hesitate to add salt to a dish if needed. I believe the people who should worry eat fast food and pre-packaged meals — which would be bad for them even if they were low-sodium.

  8. Natashya says:

    I have been reading Salt, A World History by Mark Kurlansky this week and have noticed the same that you have.
    I do ignore much of the shock stories on the news and the latest in “health” discoveries. Next month it will just be something else.
    (Except for red wine, I want that to be true so I can feel angelic when I tipple.)
    I don’t think it is a mystery what foods are good. People for the most part have good sense.
    Nutrition is important, but there are many other factors that effect health. Environment, lifestyle, mental health, heredity, etc.
    We try to eat as much fresh produce and whole grains as we can and make the bulk of our food from scratch. And the odd hamburger and fries? Won’t kill us.

  9. jasmine says:

    I think we have to keep in mind who it is that ultimately benefits from these sparkly new discoveries and proclamations…hint…it’s not necessarily the consumer…

    Unfortunately common sense is no longer common and many people have outsourced so many things (in this case, cooking and foodish knowledge) that they rely upon various experts to tell them how to live. I suppose if you don’t want to take responsibility for your own actions that’s the safe way of doing things…

    I don’t pay attention to nutrition news (unless it’s a recall)…it seems very subjective and trends-based, brimming with ulterior motives.

    j -in a snarky mood.

  10. pogoyogamama says:

    Nutrition causes confusion every single day in this house. I try to pay really close attention to what I eat in an effort to control the effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis (no “Nightshade” vegetables, limited dairy, tons of fish oil and flax) but every book will give a different answer to the ssme question. One says I shouldn’t eat eggs, one says I should have two a day. It’s crazy.

    I don’t think you can go too wrong with the basics – fruit and veg and a little of everything else.

  11. shivya says:

    Absolutely.

    I have given up reading up on nutrition facts and started in cooking at home, with the ‘healthiest’ ingredients possible. Sometimes I think health is more of psychological thing. When you think you’re eating healthy, you feel healthy too!

  12. Amy says:

    Wow – lots of great discussion…. I agree that good nutrition is totally subjective. What is good for one, could kill another (peanuts as an example) and I believe all food has at least one redeeming quality – if not just if at that particular moment in time it makes you happy to eat it.

    Just don’t eat it by the ton – ie salt, cheese (which I can’t live without), chocolate… whatever your “indulgence” is.

    As someone who also writes and teaches nutrition related topics too and as it has already been said above in many ways – variety and moderation are the best ways to approach food.

  13. […] What is new is that in a day and age when we are inundated with messages about the dangers fat, sodium and sugar can play in our diets that this combination would be more popular than ever […]

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