What is an element that is essential to life yet is also a leading cause of disease? Well many things unfortunately, but I was thinking about salt.
Go back a couple thousand years and watch where ‘ancient’ civilizations took root and there is a clear pattern: salt (and water)! Large populations were never too far away from a source of salt because it was essential to human survival. The further you were from the source, the more valuable it became. It became so valuable that it literally traded like currency, in some cases as valuable as gold.
According to the USDA, the ‘recommended’ daily intake of salt is 1100mg, or about 1tsp. The average American consumes 3400mg, about the amount of salt on a large bucket of movie theater popcorn. What gives?
Salt is one of the primary tastes that we are wired for. It keeps our bodies from dehydrating. It makes food taste ‘better.’ In addition, it stimulates salivary glands and enzymes that we need to digest our food.
Eating is firstly about survival; cooking is taking food to the next level and making it easier to digest. When you have the basics covered, you can then move on to flavor development and enjoy the food that you eat. Salt thus functions on two levels: it aids in preserving food and it makes food taste better.
A lot of this salt in the modern American diet comes from processed food. The processed food industry (cue the villain music) has determined that people like salty food. It tastes better so you eat more and they sell more. Then they add other flavor enhancers, such as MSG and sugar, making food ‘taste even better,’ hence consuming even more.
This is not an accident. It is designed to capitalize on the fact that, from an evolutionary standpoint, we crave salt. What’s a mother to do?
What about all the trendy iterations we face these days: smoked sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, black volcanic salt, and my favorite, espresso-infused sea salt? It is marketing shtick, and it is salt. Cooking should be interesting and fun, so there is nothing wrong with any of them. Like the many variety of vinegars in my pantry, it is a source of conversation when we have guests over. Nevertheless, it is still salt. In excess, it is not good for you.
I do not have a recipe today, but I do have a bit of advice: salt early but not often. Salt your food (carefully) before you cook it and it will infuse your food with flavor. Making potato salad? Cook the potatoes in salted water and you will not have to add salt later. Burgers on the grill? A pinch of kosher salt on the burgers will enhance both the flavor of the burger and yield better grill marks! By introducing it early in the process, it seeps into the food and enhances flavor. Salt after cooking and it just sits there and tastes, well, salty!
To help keep food flavorful and fun get creative with flavors other than salt. There is a whole world of herbs and spices out there that will enhance your food. Experiment with ethnic recipes. Moreover, when you sit to eat, taste your food. Allow your taste buds to process the flavor of the food before you numb them with additional table salt. Your arteries will thank you.