Ingrained Behavior Learning to Limit Salt Doesn't Mean Limiting Flavor

By Pankey, Deborah | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

Ingrained Behavior Learning to Limit Salt Doesn't Mean Limiting Flavor


Pankey, Deborah, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Deborah Pankey Daily Herald Food Editor

Salt: a white granular substance used to flavor food. That Webster's definition sounds so benign.

"We've used salt since the beginning of time," says chef George Macht, who oversees the culinary arts program at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. "We learned from nature, the animals would trek to the salt licks and we followed the animals so we could eat the animals. We eventually discovered it sure made our food taste better."

Salt's use in the kitchen goes beyond that. It draws the moisture out of cells - without it a steak wouldn't be as juicy, Macht says. It controls the growth of yeast in dough and contributes to bread's texture. In chocolate chip cookies, salt plays off the chocolate, making the flavor more pronounced.

Its use has been ingrained in our human makeup for eons, so how, if it's so natural, occurring even in mother's milk, did salt get such a bad rep? Why are American Medical Association, the American Heart Association and other health organizations telling us to limit our intake?

Salt technically isn't the culprit; rather it's the sodium in salt (sodium chloride) that can be bad for your health, with high levels linked to hypertension and some forms of cancer. The AMA's recommendation to curb sodium intake to 2,300 mg a day addresses just that - sodium. That equals about 1 teaspoon.

Now you're probably thinking that you don't come close to sprinkling a teaspoon of salt on your food.

Keep in mind that 75 to 80 percent of the sodium the average American ingests comes from processed foods. One serving of canned soup, a frozen dinner (even the "lean" ones) and a helping of some jarred pasta sauces can contain 20 percent of the day's recommended sodium intake.

By limiting your reliance on these and other sodium-packed foods, by selecting natural meats and fresh produce and by putting down the salt shaker and picking up herbs, you can lower your sodium intake without sacrificing flavor.

"If you take away salt and put nothing in its place, your taste buds are going to be very sad," says registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner.

Blatner recommends herbs, especially dried blends, to boost flavor. Sprinkle an Italian blend on sauteed zucchini or Cajun seasoning on french fries, she says.

"Experiment in the spice aisle," she says. "I know it can be scary for some people, but buy one new spice a week. You can reduce the salt (in a recipe) or eliminate it all together and make your meal taste even better."

Adding citrus zest and juice or vinegar (white, cider, balsamic...) to sauces, marinades or soups can "trick the taste buds" into thinking food has salt, she adds. Your tongue tastes sour and your mind adds the complementary salt flavor to the mix.

Linda Van Horne, a research nutritionist and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, agrees that meals prepared with less salt don't have to be boring.

"If you're going to add something to vegetables, add something that adds nutritional benefits - a little grated cheese. A lot of people enjoy a little bit of olive oil and garlic over vegetables that can bring up the flavor, and it's nutritious," Van Horne says.

By selecting in-season produce when it's at its height of ripeness, you can "take advantage of nature to enhance the flavor," she says.

When she cooks for her family, Van Horne says she keeps an eye out for the lower-sodium convenience products, like taco seasoning or canned tomatoes. She also says there's no reason not to use low- sodium broth in recipes. If you think your chowder needs more salt, add a shake at the table.

"The added salt is not as damaging as what's in the (store- bought) product," she says.

Van Horne says that if we reduce our sodium intake gradually, our palates will adjust and in time we won't even miss it. …

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