6 things you need to know about your taste for salt – by guest Sharon Brooks RNutrExpert Examiner — By Emma Stirling on January 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm
Do you ask for salt at a restaurant, if it isn’t on the table? Are your favourite comfort or snack foods chips or salty crackers? We all know that an excessive intake of dietary salt has been implicated in the development of hypertension (high blood pressure), a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. You can read more in our archived blood pressure post here. But how do you go low with sodium, if it’s the one thing you crave? In order to answer this question we need to understand a little more about salt and the science of taste perception.
Many factors affect your perceived taste
Salty taste receptors are located throughout the entire oral cavity. However, the intensity of the salty flavour detected is determined by several factors such as the concentration of salt in the food, whether salt is on the surface of the food or combined within it, the time it takes for the food to be chewed and swallowed and its aftertaste.
Liking for salty foods is influenced by prior exposure
To date there is little evidence to suggest that salty preferences are influenced by genes. The science in fact suggests infants and children’s preference for salt and subsequent adult preferences are influenced by foods consumed just after 6 months of age. That is, early exposure conditions us to a certain level of salt that suits each individual. Researchers at Deakin University Sensory Science have dubbed this our “bliss” level. As we age and our taste receptors diminish it’s common to season food more heavily to arrive at our recognised or learned level of saltiness.
Salt imparts more than flavour in food
There are many reasons for salt addition in food products. Traditionally, salt was added as a preserving agent to compensate for the lack of cooling devices such as fridges and freezers. Salt is comprised of sodium and chloride. The sodium component heightens the sensory properties of food. It does this by increasing sweetness and saltiness and by decreasing bitterness. Sodium also provides textural and technological support to foods. For example, the addition of salt to dough facilitates the ‘stretch’. Salt addition also affects the starter culture activity in cheese making.
The pressure’s on to shake the salt habit
The Australian Division of World Action and Salt Health (AWASH) have launched a “Drop the Salt” campaign that encourages processed foods to be lowered in salt by 25% in 5 years. In addition many governments around the globe have set sodium targets across food categories. Removing and/or lowering the salt content in foods is actually quite difficult. Common salt replacers such as potassium chloride and calcium chloride tend to leave unappealing after tastes such as bitter, metallic and astringent flavours.
Many of your favourite food products are being (carefully) reformulated
The removal or reduction of salt also substantially alters the sensory properties of the food. Removing too high a quantity too soon may reduce consumer likeability for that product. In other words your favourite packet of chips will no longer taste like your favourite packet of chips and sales will drop. However, responsible leaders in the food industry like Unilever have shown through extensive research that incremental reductions are effective. If they slowly step down the level of salt overtime, guess what? You get used to it and your favourite packet of chips tastes exactly the same. Your tastebuds become used to the revised flavour.
- Compare the sodium content of like food products. Look at the mg of sodium in the per 100g column. A low salt food is less than 120mg/100g by Australian food law.
- Many chefs believe they have a trained palate to season food correctly, however the science supports the need for individual choice. If you’re preparing food it is better to under-season and allow your diners or guests to salt at the table.
- Aim to step down the salt level in your favourite recipes over time and trick your tastebuds to a new “bliss” level.
- Invest in a quality finishing sea or rock salt from fleur de sel to Himalayan Pink. Stick to local choices where you can, like the divine Mount Zero here in Australia.
- Explore your culinary toolkit of aromatics to enhance flavour with less salt – roasted spices, pungent fresh herbs, lime zest, garlic, fresh ginger and more.
Thanks Sharon, it’s been fantastic having you on board this month. There are some foods that I just have to add salt, like egg on toast, but overall my palate is fairly sensitive. I often find cafe salads overly salty. How about you lovely readers? Are you a salt craver? Have you thought about slowly weaning yourself by stepping down the salt content in cooking or products you buy? Love to hear and share in the comments below.