In defense of salt

Seattle chefs (backed by more than a little research) dispute conventional wisdom: Salt is good.
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Bags of salt at shrimp processing plant, Westport, Wash.

Seattle chefs (backed by more than a little research) dispute conventional wisdom: Salt is good.

Back in the day, maybe a decade ago, when his restaurant, Mistral, was located in Belltown (where Spur is today), chef William Belickis used to give salt seminars to curious foodies: pink salt, black salt, scruffy-looking salt, from oceans, volcanoes, far-away places. It felt like visiting a speakeasy. A few doors away, at Restaurant Zoe, Scott Staples was building a reputation as a chef whose dishes were exceptionally packed with flavor. His secret, he confided to me, was that he wasn't afraid to use salt.

These days, Belickis displays a dozen colorful varieties at his out-in-the-open work station at Mistral Kitchen on Westlake. Salt has gone public. Specialty salt, at any rate. Generically, salt is still demonized for America's dietary sins, for our society's obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. There's a salt police, of course: The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates that sodium levels be displayed on processed food labels, and suggests a daily limit of 2,300 milligrams. Doctors routinely recommend low-salt diets for patients with heart disease.

Yet the scientific "evidence" that salt is responsible for hypertension (leading to obesity and heart disease) is flimsy at best. The New York Times ran a popular op-ed recently on this lack of solid, anti-salt science. In fact, eating less salt causes the kidneys to increase production of renin, which can actually increase the risk of heart disease.

What's more, the salt levels in modern processed foods don't hold a candle to the traditional salt processed foods we used to eat, say before we had refrigerators, and that are still consumed in many parts of the world. Salt consumption is considerably higher in the Mediterranean than the US, and nobody suggests that the Mediterranean diet "causes" heart disease. Quite the contrary.

That's the dirty little secret about the Mediterranean diet. The original, seven-country study that showed the cardiovascular benefits of the Mediterranean diet, neglected to mention its very high salt content.

The VP for Science & Research at the Salt Institute is Dr. Morton Satin (Yes, Morton; get over it. Good thing, he says, that his middle name isn't “Brine.”) He's been arguing for years that salt isn't such a bad boy, after all. Pooh, we think; Satin is just a shill, reciting the salt-party's party line. His goal is to sell more salt, so we pay no heed. But we should.

An email I received from Satin earlier this year said, "The majority of research conducted over the past few years and published in accredited peer-reviewed journals specifically cautions against lowering salt consumption for individuals." Why would that be? These are peer-reviewed studies, after all. Yet, Satin continues, "the detrimental health effects of doing so include increased morbidity and mortality from Type I and Type II diabetes, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease and heart failure."

For example, the authors of a recent report on sodium levels in fast food failed to note that in many countries (the Mediterranean region, Asia), salt consumption is higher than in the United States and so is life expectancy and general health. Asian fish sauce and soy sauce, contain very high levels of sodium, but they don't seem to be harmful or detrimental to longevity. So why, we can only ask, do American scientists make Morton's salt the bogey-man?

I suggest that it's this country's prohibitionist mentality. We see a problem like public drunkenness and outlaw liquor. (On the other hand, we don't respond to violent lawlessness by outlawing firearms.) We see obesity, and impose draconian measures to limit salt (or, in New York City, proposing to limit the serving size of sugary drinks).

We fail to recognize that salt has a valuable function, not just as a preservative of foods like fish and meat but as a vital dietary ingredient that also happens to enhance the taste of food. Untamed animals travel far to reach a salt lick. Romans sometimes paid their soldiers in salt. A decade ago, Mark Kurlansky wrote an enthralling book titled, simply, Salt, which argues that the quest for salt is responsible for much of the world's history.

"Americans are afraid of salt," laments Enza Sorrentino, whose full-flavored Sicilian dishes at her eponymous restaurants on Queen Anne were more than once described as "too salty" by customers with palates accustomed to bland American sauces. Or worse: covering salty flavors with gobs of cream-based sauces. "Troppo panna!" says Enza. Too much cream.

Cooking pasta in water with the salinity of the ocean, as is done throughout the Mediterranean, requires two tablespoons of salt per liter, but few American cooks would add half a cup of salt into a gallon of boiling water. Very little of the salt gets into the spaghetti, mind you, but there's a psychological barrier that's hard to overcome.

Yet a well-made pasta puttanesca is full of salty (and flavorful) ingredients. In addition to the noodles, there's salt in the tomato sauce, in the anchovies, in the olives, in the capers. There's salt in cured meats: the pancetta of a spaghetti carbonara, the guanciale (pork cheeks) of an amatriciana.

But it's not as if Sicilians (or Italians in general) deliberately add salt. To the contrary, they never, ever put salty, creamy butter on fish; just a squeeze of lemon. Basta!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).