Salt of the Earth I
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 23, 2006 - Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net - Archive
It’s a simple, incontrovertible fact. There is no flavoring element more vital to cooking than salt. Nothing accentuates flavor better than salt. Salt combines with food to produce a synergistic enhancement of the food’s natural essence. But even more importantly, salt is one of the basic flavor sensations that our taste buds are genetically wired to detect. Therefore, it’s this one-two punch of salt’s effect on food in conjunction with our intrinsic receptivity to it that produces our innate, nearly universal, and sometimes even addictive attraction to it. In fact, I would go as far to say that everybody likes the taste of salt and most of those that don’t have been conditioned not to, (thanks to yet another example of pseudo-science and human ignorance which we’ll get to shortly). We are as biologically programmed to gravitate toward the taste of salt as birds are to fly. Only aberrations in the human psyche can overwhelm this basic biological predisposition, such as the paranoia about salt and hypertension.
Society is like the fans at a football game. Unpredictably a few people stand up and raise their arms and suddenly most of the stadium is doing the wave. This is exactly what happens in our food-neurotic, health-fanatic culture. A few isolated or preliminary reports surface about a particular food and its relation to health, and practically overnight you have a wave of unquestioning individuals indoctrinated into the new trend like mindless automatons. People don’t question the source of the information. Is the source reliable? Is it based on sound scientific study? Has the study been replicated? Are the findings robust enough to justify altering our diets? Are the findings generalizeable to everyone or significant for only certain individuals? Etc. etc. etc.
Quickly the new rage spreads like wildfire. The media, seeking to cash in, willingly jumps on the bandwagon. Health fads increase ratings. The sheer momentum of the craze instills in people a false sense of its validity. If the 6 o’clock news, Time magazine and Oprah Winfrey are all talking about salt and high blood pressure then it must be true right? Like brainwashed cult members, people are reducing their salt intake, buying low-sodium products, (from food companies also looking to capitalize on the craziness), and gasping when I salt a steak in my cooking class; as if I’m sprinkling poison on the food.
I will not bore you with all the details, scientific studies, and references regarding sodium intake and high blood pressure. Simply put the words “salt” and “hypertension” in your internet search engine and read for yourself. But I will summarize where the issue stands at this point in time:
1) There are no documented studies proving the benefits of a low salt diet.
2) Changes in blood pressure in response to alterations in sodium intake are modest at best and these changes disappear over time since the body adjusts to sodium level fluctuations.
3) There appears to be only a very small subgroup of “sodium-sensitive” individuals who might benefit from a lower salt diet.
The founder of the American Society of Hypertension, Dr. John Laragh, stated in 2001: “Is there any proven reason for us to grossly modify our salt intake or systematically avoid table salt? Is this a proven healthy thing to do, that is, will it save us from the major goals of antihypertensive therapy, such as a later heart attack or stroke or kidney failure? Generally speaking the answer is either a resounding no, or that, at best, there is not any positive direct evidence to support such recommendations. And equally relevant, what are the new risks you might be taking on by avoiding salt?” (American Journal of Hypertension, (14)4:307-310.
If you’re REALLY concerned about your blood pressure, there are a number of things you can do that will have a more dramatic and longer lasting effect. These include medication, ceasing smoking and excessive alcohol intake, losing weight, reducing your stress, and exercising. But I guess it’s easier to forego the salt shaker and kid yourself that you’re delaying your fatal heart attack than getting your butt on a treadmill four times a week.
A century ago Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, realized that before he could help people with their problems, he had to first overcome their resistance to addressing their problems. The paranoia about salt is just such a resistance. While maybe containing a grain of truth, the anti-salt movement has nevertheless conditioned many people to needlessly avoid an essential element to the enjoyment of food. Next week, in the second half of this article, I wish to discuss the different types of salt and how to use them. But first, we need to overcome our resistance. I invite you to be in the minority of people who remain seated during the wave; sitting there enjoying their salty hot dog with their salty mustard, questioning what all the fuss is about.