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Jan. 21 2010 - 7:17 pm | 211 views | 0 recommendations | 369 comments

Confessions Of A Salt Fiend: How To Cut Back On The White Stuff

I was enjoying some vegan, curried apple and squash soup from Wholefoods earlier when I was struck by a curious thought three-quarters of the way through the tub. The soup was richly spiced with a boisterous chili kick; it had an unctuous creaminess often absent in vegan dishes courtesy of a good dose of coconut milk and it was nicely balanced by what I suspect to be lemongrass and a hit of lime juice. Whilst it certainly didn’t seem to be lacking anything, it suddenly struck me that the soup was distinctly less salty than how I normally take my food. So my taste buds retreated, habit waded in and I pulled out my carton of fine sea salt and assaulted the dregs of the soup with a shower of sodium.

This, in the wake of a recently published study by Californian researchers which reveals that there would be between 54,000 and 99,000 fewer heart attacks every year and up to 92,000 fewer deaths, if everyone ate just half a teaspoon less salt per day. And if that isn’t startling enough- it rides the coattails of another recent piece of research, this time from Japan, which shows that aside from the well known connection between salt and high blood pressure, increased intake of salt boosts the risk of heart disease and the risk of cancer. My bad.

As a responsible foodie who buys organic eggs, vitamin-rich locally grown kale and ensures her meat once roamed grassy pastures, I have come to parade myself as being something of a model of sensible eating. But when it comes to my salt intake I shamefully admit to being a salt fiend of the worst kind. It’s true that processed foods, whether you’re talking deli meats, chips, tomato sauce or perfectly square white bread, are packed with monstrously high levels of salt – 3 rashers of bacon can account for nearly your entire daily allowance of salt. In fact, over 80% of our salt intake comes from processed foods, so we barely even realize it’s there. But, it’s a terrible misconception that people who don’t frequent fast food joints, who shop at farmer’s markets and who regularly cook with fresh ingredients, i.e. folk like me, are consuming any less salt than the Burger King fanatic. If anything, I’m committing an even worse crime because I’m directly responsible for my own high salt quotient.

Research conducted last summer by the Center for Science in the Public Interest showed that 85 out of 102 meals served in 17 chain restaurants including Chili’s and Olive Garden contained more than a day’s worth of sodium (some even contain 4 days worth!!). But such salt sprees aren’t limited to budget friendly joints. Should you ever roam about the kitchens of haute cuisine establishments with a tasting spoon you’ll note that the best of chefs are as liberal with their salt shaker as they are with their sticks of butter. “Season, season, season” was the mantra of my instructors at culinary school. What they often meant by this was throw in a third teaspoon of salt. It was this training, I believe, that altered my tastebuds to crave salt like a toddler craves candy. There are numerous theories as to why chefs develop such a hearty appetite for salt. One is that their palates lose their sensitivity to the seasoning over years in the kitchen. Another albeit somewhat tenuous theory I heard from a fellow chef is that many chefs are heavy smokers and this dependency dulls their tastebuds. Whatever the reason, quite frankly, whether you are dining out on Michelin starred fare or at Red Lobster’s all-you-can-eat buffet, you are overdosing on salt.

The good news though, is that apparently once you recognize you are consuming too much salt, and you cut the amount you add by a third, it actually won’t be all that long until your palate reacclimatizes and your cravings for the white powder lessen. The bad news is that for the first 2-3 weeks that it takes your taste buds to adjust, you’ll probably find your food tastes bland and lacking and you’ll hanker after a salt block to suck on.

As a rule of thumb, you should have not much more than 1 teaspoon of salt a day (about 2300mg). On average Americans consume 2-3 times this amount. Here are some tips to help you cut your salt intake with as little pain as possible.

  1. Combine your salt with a mixture of your favorite spices, such as ground cumin, ground pink peppercorns and ground coriander and use this concoction to season your cooking. This way you’ll use less salt and the spices will give your dish a real boost.
  2. Use half the amount of salt you would normally use and jack up the flavor with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a handful of freshly chopped herbs. The wonderful, fresh flavors will compensate for the reduction of salt.
  3. Use low –sodium soy sauce. Soy sauce has far less sodium that salt as a general rule but will still give you’re their salty taste with a umami boost.
  4. Cut the salt and add a squeeze of tomato paste instead. Like soy sauce and mushrooms, tomato paste is packed with umami goodness that will add a rich, savory backdrop to your dish.
  5. Keep salt only in the kitchen cupboard and not on the dining table. Instead, indulge in a chic, new pepper mill so you can enjoy freshly ground pepper instead of salt at the table.
  6. Use garlic powder and onion powder to add flavor and savory depth rather than salt to your cooking. And the pale appearances of these powders will trick your brain into thinking you’re getting your salt fix.
  7. If you use canned fish or vegetables, rinse them well under running water before cooking or eating. To inject flavor into them, look to your spice cupboard and a smattering of fresh herbs!

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    About Me

    Confused, perhaps. Well fed, definitely. A Malaysian of Tamil ethnicity, raised in London and now living in New York, I couldn’t have asked for a better culinary heritage. My Sunday roast is massaged with garlic, ginger and red chilies. My chicken soup is infused with heady coriander and the warmth of toasted cumin. My meatballs are transformed by a spattering of my mother’s curry powder and a glug of soy sauce.

    I live to eat and I eat to live. Quite literally. I write about food, who produces it, who cooks it and who eats it. Most recently I was the food editor for the London based culinary magazine, Fresh, and my first cookbook, Chop, Sizzle & Stir - the final word on stir frying - has recently hit the shelves. I have also written for numerous culinary and lifestyles magazines in the UK and in the Southeast Asia. When I'm not cooking, thinking about my next meal or eyeing up someone else's, I'm usually asleep!

    I’m fascinated by our culinary customs, traditions and innovations. The recipes we learn from our mothers, the treats we indulge in when no one’s looking and the meals we dish up for friends reveal who we are and who we want to be. So join me in this most delicious quest as I concoct, imbibe and ingest to understand that little bit more about my fellow diners!

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