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May 31, 2010

The Vilification Of Salt

When I was growing up, my grandfather was on a low salt diet. He had a heart condition and used a salt substitute: I think it was potassium chloride, a funky substance that felt like it sizzled when it hit your tongue. In solidarity, I put myself on a low salt diet, refusing to add extra salt to anything that was served on the dinner table. If he could do it, I could too -- I also learned to eat blue cheese off the end of a knife, a la Viking style. We were buddies, always playing cards and building things out of scrap wood left over from his carpenter days. He referred to me as his little spark plug. He died in 1985 of heart failure. I still miss him.

As I've gotten older, I've acquired food as a hobby. I've watched cooking shows, astounded at the amount of salt that chefs use. But I have incorporated their methods, albeit judiciously, recognizing that salting a dish in stages brings out unique flavor properties during different phases of cooking. For this reason, it irritates me just a little when someone salts something I've made without tasting it first. In the back of mind, I wonder about their heart.

So, when I stumbled upon a New York Times article concerning the health impact of salt in the modern American diet, it was no news to me. We've known the link between excess sodium intake and its relationship to hypertension since the 1970s. Today, most of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods and eating out at fast food restaurants. Nothing gets me on my soap box quicker than our need to get back to basics and start cooking from scratch.

After all, when we eat processed food what are we really eating? Here are some elucidating quotes from the article:

Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”

The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic.

Yuk! What are they hiding? Why are we eating this stuff when real, whole food tastes better, is better for us, and can help prevent us from becoming fat? Yes, it is more expensive and more time consuming, but what are we doing with our time otherwise? Watching TV? Sitting at the computer? Stuck in our cars going from place to place to store to restaurant with a blue tooth in our ear so we're never really in touch with this moment right now?

Like everything else in our fragmented lives, we've stopped to examine our diet by its components, one nutrient at a time. We try to identify a culprit for why we're all so sick, such as over-consumption of fat or sugar. We take fish oil supplements rather than eating a fish, and a Vitamin D supplement rather than spending 15 minutes in the sun walking to the park.

Messages about consumerism are all around us and the messages have succeeded in skewing our perceptions of what is important. I do believe it is useful to stop the frenetic pace we live for a moment and examine what we really believe will make us happy and healthy. Life is a work in progress. And so far, I think I'm succeeding. I'm not perfect by any means, so do I really have room to talk? Probably not. But hey, like all of us, I'm trying. As for my advice, well, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Posted by linda at May 31, 2010 4:23 PM

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