It seems Americans have an intense difficulty moderating themselves when it comes to the basic building blocks of nutrition. We know all too well the effects of our sugar- (and corn syrup)-laden diets (or at least we should).
But there’s another problem at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, one whose insidious prevalence in our culture is rarely discussed. I’m talking about salt.
(Just in case anyone starts reading this thing, this post represents my personal opinion, forged by observation and a little bit of research. I don’t officially know what I’m talking about.)
When it comes to the issue of sodium in the American diet, I am often reminded of a quote by my favorite chemist:
The USDA recommended daily intake of sodium is 2300 mg (that’s 6 grams or 1 teaspoon of salt). High-risk individuals are urged to cut that amount down to only 1500 mg. Horrifyingly, 90% of Americans consume 3400 mg of sodium daily, 68% more than the amount recommended for a healthy individual.
What’s the big deal?
Diets high in sodium have been linked to high blood pressure (hypertension), which can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, stomach cancer, osteoporosis, and stroke (source). Fun, yeah? But it’s not just an adult problem. 1 in 6 children ages 8-17 years has raised blood pressure (source).
How did this happen?
The taste for salt (as well as the taste for sugar) is developed at a very young age. Parents who eat too much salt are likely to over-salt their children’s food. The problem is that starting this process of over-salinization at such a young age overstimulates (for lack of a better term) the tastebuds, rendering any foods without all that salt all but inedible. It’s one of the reasons why kids grow up hating vegetables and kids who grow up hating vegetables turn into adults who simply cannot eat them (I’ve met more than a few Midwesterners whose gag reflexes are triggered by the faintest addition of anything green).
Salt is highly addictive. While it is an essential nutrient and can strongly alter our perception of flavor (for the better, most of the time), disingenuous manufacturers and food purveyors use salt’s addictive quality to their own advantage (source).
Where does it come from?
77% of this excess sodium comes from processed or prepackaged foods and restaurants (source).
There’s no single reason why processed foods have such high sodium content. There are many speculations but here’s what I think:
- Appeal. People crave salt. Packing a processed food with sodium makes it more delicious and more addictive. It also makes lower sodium products not taste as good (or like anything, I guess).
- Consistency. Since salt amps up your tastebuds, using a ton of it in mass-produced products with ingredients sourced from a myriad of places (and times) makes for a consistently-flavored product. It just tastes like salt.
- Preservation. Salt is a well-known food saver. It’s been used since the (real) paleo days to make the inedible edible again. It’s use in processed foods (I’m sure) is not just for flavor enhancement.
Even restaurants that use fresh ingredients over-salt (or “season,” as cooks call it) their dishes well beyond those of the home cook. Again, I speculate:
- Appeal. It’s the same thing. Humans like salt.
- Control. Many Americans salt their food at the table. Professional cooks want their food to taste the way they made it. They may over season (subconsciously?) to keep diners from re-seasoning their fare.
- Cooks can’t tell. Based on my own experience working in restaurants: Most cooks and chefs smoke like chimneys. It doesn’t matter how trained your palate is; smoking kills taste buds and damages olfactory receptors, deadening your tongue to flavors (source). Cooks over-salt food because they simply can’t taste it.
Salt is hygroscopic. It traps and holds onto water wherever it can get it. On the outside of meaty surfaces, it will draw moisture out of the tissue (like when you put salt on a steak or a slug).
On the inside, though, salt will hold on to moisture within the tissue (imagine brining a turkey). This is called “retaining water,” and it’s a yucky state of affairs.
In fact, I can see the damage from a salty day (if I eat at a restaurant or get movie popcorn or whatever) on my face the next morning. My face gets puffy and bloated; it actually tingles. When I run or walk, I can feel parts of my face bouncing. Sometimes I can see my cheeks just by looking down. My muscles get sore and my fingers turn into fat little sausages.
Imagine trying to workout or live a normal, healthy lifestyle carrying around all of that water weight. Horrible, right? Luckily, there’s something you can do about it. But it’s not easy or pretty.
And that’s a cliffhanger for part two of my salt diatribe.