Salt is a little mineral surrounded by big controversy. Today, many health authorities suggest limiting salt intake. This advice is a modern phenomenon that has much to do with the relatively recent popularity of eating out (restaurants over-salt food considerably), with the average American eating prepared food from a restaurant five or six times weekly. Salt on its own, however, is an important part of any balanced diet. Here is the breakdown.
For thousands of years, salt has been used for food preservation, fermentation, cleaning, medicine, and religious ritual. With it, civilizations were able to progress technology and global trade routes by easing reliance on seasonal food and increasing the distance they could transport food. Many of the earliest roads were built for the trade of salt (now called “salt roads”). Salt was so valuable during the early Roman Empire that soldiers were often paid in salt instead of money—indeed, the modern word “salary” has its roots in the Latin sal, for salt.
FOR YOUR HEALTH
People need about a teaspoon to a teaspoon and a half of salt a day for the sodium and chloride we need. Sodium, in the proper amounts, is an important component in hydration, reducing the risk of heart disease, and regulating both the nervous system and hormones. Salt, with the trace minerals of chloride and iodine, is also helpful when it comes to digesting food. Sally Morrell Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, states that chloride is “the only way we can make hydrochloric acid for digesting meats.”
The iodine found in salt regulates our thyroid, which is a major player in weight management and hormone regulation. Iodine also serves the important role of protecting our bodies from heavy metals like mercury and lead. Since 1956, a process using iodine called chelation has been used to cure people of heavy metal poisoning.
Lee Murphy, MS-MPH, RDN, LDN, and Distinguished Lecturer at the Department of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee, agrees that salt must be taken in because it is needed for survival—with some disclaimer. “Salt is not in and of itself a bad thing to consume,” she explains, however “some people have a condition where they shouldn’t take in as much.”
Here she is referring to sodium-sensitive hypertension: a particular risk-factor that causes spikes in blood pressure among 25% of people with an average blood pressure of 120 over 80 and 50% of the people who suffer from generally higher blood pressure. Sodium-sensitive hypertension can be caused by everything from genetics to environmental factors, but the majority of people don’t have a marked issue.
THE ACTUAL PROBLEM
Why, knowing all of this, would doctors and outfits around the country recommend lowering sodium intake? Overconsumption of salt is a big 21st century problem, because of restaurants. Many restaurants—and especially chains—have great incentive to use far more salt than is necessary: it’s delicious! Data collected across many large chain restaurants found that the average menu item had almost 100% of a high risk individual’s salt intake, and a full third of the general recommendation. Some restaurants were more offensive than others, with most orders of Hardee’s half-pound American Thickburger and a medium fry holding about two teaspoons of salt on its own. That’s around 150% to 200% the recommended daily intake, in one meal. Says nutritionist Murphy of the over-salted restaurant foods: “They want it to taste great and strong, so people get addicted.”
Packaged foods are no help, with not only the same over-salting found in chain restaurants, but salt substitutes becoming widely used and largely unlabeled. One additive company founded in 1998, called Senomyx, claimed that they were able to “reverse engineer” humans’ flavor and scent receptors. In 2001, they patented a number of “flavor enhancers” designed to trick the human brain into believing it has taken in a flavor that it has not. These operate by “proprietary taste-receptor based assay systems” noted through the use of genetically modified HEK293 cells, a popular cell line in biomedical research originally taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in 1973.
Senomyx’s products are free of the requirement to report ingredients to consumers, and are only read on a package as “artificial flavors.” For this reason, they have not needed to deal with getting the FDA's approval. The company Senomyx was acquired by a Swiss company, Firmenich, in 2018. Firmenich—which operates as a fragrance and flavor company—is today the largest privately owned company in the flavor business, grossing $4.3 billion in 2021. Be assured that those original Senomyx tastes are in your grocery aisle.
Because salt is necessary in diet, the substitution of it with “artificial flavors” that trick your brain into believing it has had salt when it hasn’t can lead to salt deprivation.
WHAT DO I DO?
The first step with any dietary decision is to know your own body and how it reacts to different foods. If you are salt-sensitive, you still need some for the aforementioned health benefits. Keep an eye on your blood pressure and if you eat something that makes you feel sickly, don’t eat it again.
For everyone, a good rule of thumb is to enjoy nutritious, home-cooked meals whenever possible. If you must eat out, just be aware of what it is you’re eating! Extra salt isn’t the only menace in the industrial food supply. When shopping, stick to whole foods and ingredients, and when moving to the inner aisles of the grocery store, be sure to scan those ingredients lists to avoid nasty surprises. When cooking back at home, there is no need to drive yourself crazy: a teaspoon of salt is still quite a bit, and you aren’t likely to overdo it without tasting it. Feel free to enjoy those home fries in butter.
HOME FRIES IN BUTTER: Serves 4
- 4 tablespoons of butter
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 onion, diced
- 6 red potatoes, chopped into half-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon of cumin
- ½ teaspoon of chili powder
- ½ teaspoon of paprika
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
How to cook them
- Blend together your salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, and paprika in a small bowl.
- Put potatoes in a pot and cover them with about an inch of water. Place them on the stove on high heat until the water boils. Let them cook in the boiling water for about two minutes and strain out the water.
- With a frying pan on medium-low heat, drop in 2 tablespoons of butter and let it melt. When it is just starting to bubble, add the onions and stir them frequently for about five minutes. Then add the garlic and stir for about one more minute, until fragrant. Remove from the heat.
- In a large skillet or pan on medium-high heat, add the remaining butter and let it melt and begin to bubble. Add the potatoes in a single layer, making multiple batches if you have to.
- When the bottoms of the potatoes begin to brown, lower heat to medium and add the garlic and onion butter mixture. Add the spice mixture and toss it all together, cooking for another three to five minutes.
- Remove your pan from the heat and serve your home fries! Enjoy.