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A Standard For All Seasons?


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 18, 2004 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected]

Have you ever patronized a restaurant that doesn’t have salt and pepper on the table? The assumption is that the food is already properly seasoned, (seasoning primarily refers to salt), and applying more is not only unnecessary, but may be offensive to the chef.  This implies that his or her amount of seasoning is eternally and universally accurate. I don’t mean to offend anyone but I find such a perspective incredibly presumptuous. Why? Because this position predicates that everybody’s palate is identical. And that my friends is simply ludicrous.

     Biology, age, psychology, dietary history, medical illness, and the action of commingling substances can all influence our sense of taste.  To begin, genetics determine taste bud anatomy and physiology.  A past study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggests that about one fourth of the population possesses a diminished sense of taste, while an equal number are bestowed with a superior one.  The culprit may be a singular gene. Based on this research alone, fifty percent of the populace will assess the “properly seasoned” food as either too salty or not salted enough.

     Next, biochemistry adds it’s own influence to the matrix. Sodium, along with potassium, plays a very important role in our electrolyte balance.  Salt sensitivity can be altered by the body’s salt level and its metabolism of salt.  For example, some salt cravings can be due to sodium depletion. This is the body’s natural means of signaling your brain that it requires it.  Sweating is a primary means of deleting sodium from your system. This is why they add salt to those athletic drinks. It is also suspected that hormones, namely aldosterone, can increase our salt receptors. Hormones, much like any other bodily chemical, can vary from person to person.

     Our sense of smell is keenly associated with our sense of taste.  Without our olfactory capabilities many foods would taste the same or bland. This is why food lacks its vibrancy when we have a cold.  Variability in individuals’ sense of smell will contribute to diverse senses of taste. Furthermore, aging can decrease our sense of smell and thus our sense of taste.

     There are a variety of medical conditions that can have a deleterious affect on our capacity for taste and smell.  Some affect our senses indirectly, as with a cold or other respiratory condition, and some are actual disorders of the sensory system. Viral infections, for example, are known to kill olfactory cells which do not always regenerate. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 16 million Americans suffer from smell and taste disorders. 

     Psychology and upbringing are irrefutable factors in our dietary perceptions. Individuals’ likes and dislikes are heavily swayed by the nature of the food they grew up on.  The saltier the food that you have become accustomed to, the higher the salinity content you will probably require to sense your optimum amount. This is due, not only to familiarity, but desensitization of our taste buds.  The same phenomenon occurs with spicy foods and hot peppers.

     Moreover, at the risk of opening up yet another can of worms, Americans have a proclivity for becoming neurotic and obsessed about their food. Years ago there was research to suggest that salt played a role in high blood pressure.  In no time there arose a legion of anti-salt proponents.  Now there is reason to believe that dietary sodium intake has no direct bearing on hypertension. Nevertheless, fanaticism dies hard.  There are still many salt-phobes lurking out there and you can be sure their fears are controlling their sense of taste, and subsequently their appraisal of any dish’s seasoning.

     Finally, the presence of other foods and/or substances can regulate your taste perception.  Sugar is often added to a variety of preparations to counterbalance the salt.  Some foods contain substances which actually change our taste perception of other elements.  Artichokes for example, harbor a compound known as cynarin which causes other foods, and much to the dismay of sommeliers the world over, even wine taste sweeter.

     So what is a chef to do?  He or she is left with the challenge of finding that elusive degree of seasoning that will satisfy as many people as possible. This is no small task.  I’ll never forget the day I was preparing dinner for a group of friends and gave each a preliminary taste to assess saltiness.  One thought it needed more, one thought it was right on, and a third felt it was too salty.  Talk about a culinary nightmare.  Salt can always be added to food but never removed. Thus, the safest bet is salting somewhat conservatively and allowing individuals to add more if they like.  And that’s why it’s called “table” salt.


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