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VOL. 126 | NO. 35 | Monday, February 21, 2011

Salt: How Much Is Too Much in Our Food?

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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It’s not that the salt has lost its savor but that it has been keeping company with pretty unsavory characters, like high blood pressure, heart disease and a host of other ills.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Coming under more scrutiny by the federal government because of those associations, salt was a prominent feature of new dietary guidelines issued by the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Department on Jan. 31, part of an every-five-year review of America’s (mostly bad) eating habits.

According to the new recommendations, those who are 51 or older, all the black population and people with hypertension and chronic kidney disease should reduce their intake of salt to 1,500 milligrams per day, or about half a teaspoon. Those categories account for about half of the country’s population. Everyone else should limit their intake of salt to less than 2,300 milligrams per day, or about one teaspoon.

Salt – sodium chloride – is essential to every living creature in minute quantities, especially in regulating fluid balance, but ingested to excess salt becomes highly dangerous. It’s the most ancient and consistently employed method of food seasoning and preservation, readily available in the world’s oceans and mineral deposits, and it’s cheap.

Of course the report contained other guidelines of which most of the public is familiar (if not obedient): Eat fewer calories from solid fats and added sugar; eat more fruit and vegetables; half of grain consumption should come from whole grains; eat more fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products; eat more seafood; limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two for men.

Most of the salt (and fat and sugar) that we take in every day is found not in the food we cook in our own kitchens from fresh ingredients but in processed products (up to 75 percent, according to the American Heart Association) and at fast-food restaurants. As far as salt is concerned, we’ve seen the statistics, that a Big Mac from McDonald’s contains 1,040 milligrams of salt, that a Burger King Whopper with cheese contains 1,450 milligrams of salt.

But what about at regular, full-service restaurants, where there’s a chef creating meals in the kitchen and manufactured products, ideally, are anathema?

“Salt brings out flavor in certain items,” said Rick Saviori, owner and chef of Thyme Bistro. “It depends on the dish. I tell cooks not to use much salt and always to taste dishes and then I taste. It’s better to under-salt and let the customer add salt at the table then to send out a dish that has been over-salted in the kitchen.”

The situation is more difficult to deal with if a customer is particularly sensitive to salt or is trying to avoid salt altogether.

“We try to be accommodating,” Saviori said, “but it’s not easy to eliminate salt totally. If someone orders grilled salmon and they don’t want salt, we can avoid salting the fish, but there’ll be salt on the grill.”

And what if patrons just find the food too salty?

“That happens, because people have different palates,” said Saviori, “but the kitchen can’t take every palate into consideration. If it’s something made ahead of time, like a soup, there’s not much we can do. If it’s something made right then to order, we can try and prepare the dish again. The best policy, as I said, is to under-salt and let customers add salt if they need it.”

Obviously, Saviori keeps salt shakers on the tables at Thyme Bistro – “people should be the judge of that,” he said – but taking the opposite tack is Ryan Trimm, chef and co-owner (with Glenn Hays) of Sweet Grass.

“We do not have salt and pepper on the tables,” he said, “though we make them available if people want them. I like to think that our food is seasoned right.”

In the kitchen, “we only use salt to enhance flavors,” said Trimm. “You should never be able to taste the salt. With meat from the grill, of course we give that some salt to bring out the juices. A cream sauce needs a bit more salt. Generally, we use as little salt as possible.”

Trimm and his staff taste food, particularly soups and sauces, throughout the service, especially, he said, “on a longer night. Those things that might be on the stove for hours are subject to evaporation, which would concentrate the saltiness. So, we taste periodically to check on the balance.”

One item he does salt, and pepper too, is a tomato.

“We do salt and pepper every tomato that goes out,” Trimm said. “You just can’t have a tomato without salt and pepper.”

Wally Joe, chef at the long-anticipated Acre – April is the target opening – said that salt “is a necessity. You can’t cook without it, though I find that chefs generally over-salt food. I have always tried to moderate the use of salt, but it’s there to enhance flavors.”

As far as the well-being of his clients is concerned, Joe – former chef at his eponymous restaurant on Sanderlin, now Interim – said, “I have looked after my clients’ health in other ways, by not using a lot of fat or cream or butter. My cuisine is lighter than that. I do use soy sauce, which is heavy in sodium, but I try to do that in moderation.”

Joe learned a lesson in providing salt shakers in the dining room at Wally Joe.

“When we opened the restaurant, we didn’t have salt on the tables, and customers were up in arms. People want to control how their food tastes.”

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