A Salty Subject

If it were your mission to sabotage all the restaurants in America by only removing one ingredient, what would it be?

You could do some serious damage by removing all the eggs or flour or bacon, but chefs are chefs and they could get by. However, if you were to pull all the salt from all the kitchens, food would suck.

You’d completely remove the ability to make tons of foods like anything cured (bacon, prosciutto, etc) as well as most cheeses. But more importantly, most dishes wouldn’t have that pizazz that a pinch of salt can bring to a dish. The flavors wouldn’t pop.

Trust me. Without salt, you wouldn’t recognize most, if not all, of your favorite dishes.

The Debate

As with most things, too much of a good thing can be bad for you. In the case of salt, it can be really bad for you. It can cause hypertension (high blood pressure) as well as stroke and heart disease.

So on its surface it looks like salt makes things taste good but it’s bad for you if you eat too much of it. So that seems like a pretty clear cut case for reducing the salt intake in our diets as this report states.

But I think to get at the heart of (pun alert) what’s really going on here, you have to dive a bit deeper.

How Much Is Too Much?

The short answer is that it depends on who you ask and when you ask them. About 2400 mg of sodium/day was the recommended maximum intake based on a 2000 calorie diet, but that number is plummeting lower. The American Heart Association now recommends 1500 mg per day.

Meanwhile, the average American is eating about 3500 mg of sodium a day – blowing both of those amounts out of the salted water.

Just for a visual example, here’s how much salt equates roughly to 2400 mg of sodium. Most salt is roughly 40% sodium so 6 grams of salt will get you approximately 2400 mg of sodium.

It works out to about 1 Teaspoon of table salt or a scant 2 Teaspoons of kosher salt. It doesn’t look like a lot, but if you’re up for a little experiment, try eating that much salt at once. Good luck. Also, please don’t sue me if you are stupid enough to actually try it.

How Do I Know How Much Sodium I Eat?

This is the immediate follow up question and is a much harder to answer. Let’s break down your food sources into a few categories:

Restaurants – To put it bluntly, you’re screwed. There’s really no way for you to know how much salt they’re putting into the food. Even restaurants that publish how much sodium is in a particular dish can be way off because most meals are prepared day-to-day and the amount of salt added to a dish on any given day by any given cook is pretty much impossible to regulate.

Also, since salt tastes good and restaurants are in the business of making food taste good, some of them definitely over-salt to compensate for other areas.

A good chef in a good restaurant will use the appropriate amount of salt, but that’s probably the exception. I would argue that if you’re eating out most of your meals, you are most likely consuming way more sodium than the recommended amount.

Processed FoodsThe good news about processed foods is that they are reasonably well regulated so you’ll know how much sodium is in your food by reading the nutritional info. Of course, manufacturers play with serving sizes and things, but assuming you can do some simple math, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out how much sodium you’re getting.

The bad news is that most processed foods have way too much sodium. On the last Guess the Food, I did Saltine crackers. Granted, they have the word “Salt” in the title so that might be a clue that they have some sodium in them. You would only have to eat 12 crackers though to get 20% of your daily sodium requirements. If you’re shooting for 1500mg/day, you would be at about 33% of your daily sodium needs.

So you know how much you’re getting (if you bother to read), but it’s probably more than you want.

Home Cookin’– As you might imagine (I’m pretty biased), I think cooking at home is the best way to monitor your sodium levels. For starters, if you’re using mostly raw ingredients, you know exactly how much sodium is going into everything. So if you’re trying to watch your sodium levels, just use less of it.

Sometimes it’s still hard to tell though. If you salt water for pasta, how much is transferred to the pasta? (Probably not a lot.) How about that salt-encrusted baked fish? Obviously you aren’t eating a pound of sodium by cooking your fish in salt, but how much is it? It’s kind of hard to know.

In General…

I think it’d be safe to say that if you’re trying to decrease your amount of sodium, then eat out less, eat less processed foods, and cook more at home. That way you can moderate on your own and not depend on others to inform you how much of something you are getting.

My Take On Salt

I don’t want to get into the business of advising people how to cook with salt because frankly, I’m not a nutritionist and how you should cook depends largely on your health and situation. But I can talk about how I use salt on a daily basis.

For starters, I only use a few kinds of salt. I use kosher salt for almost everything except with baking where I use normal table salt. In cooking, I don’t think there’s an actual difference in taste between the kosher salt and table salt but because kosher salt has slightly bigger flakes, it takes up more volume. Therefore, about 2 Teaspoons of Kosher salt equals the sodium of 1 Teaspoon of table salt. That gives you more leeway with your seasoning.

As far as cooking goes, I salt as I go and taste everything throughout the cooking process. I really think that salting food correctly is one of the most important things you can learn as a budding cook. For example, I made these awesome citrus arancini many months ago. I was expecting amazing results, but they were kind of bland. THEN, I sprinkled just a tiny pinch of salt on them and they came alive. I under-salted!

It’s a tough thing to learn though. There’s no hard and fast rules in my opinion. It’s just important to taste as you go and don’t add too much at once.

It’s my opinion (and I mean really it’s my opinion backed by no scientific evidence that I know of), that since I cook with mostly raw foods, my taste buds would let me know if I was consuming too much salt. The food I make would be too salty. Since that’s not the case, I don’t really worry too much about sodium on a daily basis.

Here’s a few great articles on salt:

How to Salt Food – This is about as good as it gets on advice for salting food.

Salt: Good or Bad? – More info on the subject from a guy who knows A LOT about salt. He wrote a whole book where salt is the main character.

What Salt Should I Use? – Again from Ruhlman, he has a good post on a few of the most common types of salt and what he uses for what.

So… what kind of salt do you use and what’s your take on this sodium situation?

8 comments on “A Salty Subject

  1. Salt is how you taste food. Take away salt, you take away the reason for enjoying great food from great cooks. Salt safely and with a good hand, and you’re fine!

  2. Here's my salt philosophy: avoid processed foods and buy whole foods instead. Salt them yourself until they taste good, but not salty. Save eating out for good restaurants that know how to season their food. This is what I do, and I think I keep my salt intake right around where it should be. If I occasionally eat something that I know has a high sodium content (sometimes, I just crave Ramen noodles), I don't sweat it too much because I know that the majority of the time, I'm not consuming too much salt at all.

    Now, if I had high blood pressure and I knew I really needed to be monitering my sodium intake, that would be a different story. I'd be a lot more careful of just how much salt I was adding to things, as anyone with hypertension should be.

    It's also important to remember that those recommended maximum intakes are guidelines, and they really vary from person to person. Different body types, different lifestyles, and different medical histories all affect what we should be consuming. Athletes can, even need to, consume more sodium because they lose salt when they sweat. Someone who lives a very sedentary life needs to be more careful.

    1. Great point on the athletes Jessica. Yea… different lifestyles can drastically change your recommended daily salt intake. There's a pretty huge variance.

      And I agree with you on the Ramen cravings!

  3. Great post. I think the thing about salt is not where it is, but where it's hiding. Like SODA.

    Do you know how much sodium is in soda? TONS.

  4. One thing that is never mentioned regarding restricting salt intake is the resulting reduced intake of IODINE. Here in Michigan, we are in what’s known medically as “The Goiter Belt”; iodized salt was one mechanism to get sufficient iodine into our diets to help prevent goiter (iodine is an essential element in the production of active thyroid hormone; if the thyroid has any problems producing enough, the brain sends signals that cause the thyroid gland to increase in size in an attempt to meet demand!). At least around here, while Kosher salt is used for various reasons, we have to be careful we don’t put ourselves into a state of “induced hypothyroidism” by eliminating too much *iodized* salt from our diets…either that, or find a suitable replacement source of iodine (multivitamins, kelp, shellfish, etc). After years of not adding much salt to my foods, I was found to have no recordable iodine levels in my blood, and have to take iodine supplements… and wow, did I feel it (tired, in spite of already taking thyroid hormone supplements).

    Excellent write-up on salt & sodium… and I agree regarding the flavoring. A little goes a long way, too much ruins the flavor!

  5. I don’t really understand the desire to focus on salt so much. I feel like there are so many other food issues that are more serious like safety, HFCS, trans fat that the govt should/could focus on. I think the key is to recognize that if you choose to eat out a lot you will be eating a lot more salt than you need. I mostly cook with kosher salt and occasionally use smoked salt – which is pretty awesome for beans.

  6. What I've been told in my metabolism and medical nutrition classes is that only about 20% of the population's blood pressure is influenced by sodium and that 20% is primarily comprised of non-Caucasians. The problem and reasoning for the recommendations is that we have no easy and clear cut way of saying sodium will increase person A's blood pressure and have no impact on person B's. As a result the government has to make overarching recommendations for sodium intake to protect the 20% that will have negative responses to sodium.

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