Chefs Love Salt — Too Much and Not Well

Why excess sodium is so tasty--and so tough to give up

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    Too much salt is bad for you. We all know that. But this spring, when an obscure New York State legislator proposed banning it from restaurant kitchens, my first impulse wasn't to consider the benefits of such a law; it was to start packing. Though the bill was roundly laughed off by the political establishment, the mere suggestion that "no owner or operator of a restaurant in this state shall use salt in any form in the preparation of any food" was enough to make me think briefly about moving to Canada.

    In case you hadn't noticed, salt is the latest target in the crosshairs of government officials eager to encourage healthier eating habits. It was bound to happen. Nearly everybody with a body mass index greater than that of the Olsen twins already knows to steer clear of trans fat, high-fructose corn syrup and anything with the words creamy filling on the package. But do without salt? It would be easier to do without food.

    Most Americans consume a good teaspoon and a half of sodium a day — more than double the 1,500 mg our bodies need. This excess salt is raising our blood pressure and with it our risk of heart attack and stroke — events that kill about 800,000 Americans a year. In April, a report by the Institute of Medicine called for federal limits on sodium content in packaged and restaurant food. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to announce any specific plans, but mandatory reductions are clearly a possibility. "Nothing is off the table," said FDA spokeswoman Meghan Scott. "Everyone's in agreement that something needs to be done ... We just don't know what it's going to look like."

    Your heart may be happy about this, but your tongue won't be. Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain, speaking for chefs everywhere, describes salt as the one irreplaceable ingredient in the kitchen. "It's what makes food taste good," he says. "Traditional, intelligent and skilled used of salt has become confused in the minds of nanny-state nitwits with the sneaking of salt into processed convenience foods. Nothing else encapsulates the mission of the food ideologues better than this latest intrusion: they desire a world without flavor."

    But the nitwits have a point. Our saltshakers are responsible for just 11% of the sodium we consume. The rest is added before your food reaches the table, whether it's a packaged TV dinner or a meal at your favorite restaurant. The food marketplace is under constant pressure to make everything tastier, more explosive, more exciting, and salt is everyone's go-to flavor enhancer because it opens up the taste buds. It's basically cocaine for the palate — a white powder that makes everything your mouth encounters seem vivid and fun. That's why restaurant cooks in particular use it in quantities that would make most customers' jaws drop. They grab fistfuls of it to cover steaks and roasts. They put a big pinch in a salad. It's everywhere.

    And it's not as if salt is being added only behind our backs. An increasing number of restaurants are putting out little plates of gourmet salt, so that diners can pile on crystals the size of Rice Krispies. You can't even keep salt out of dessert these days: the rage is for chocolate pudding with Maldon crystals on top, salty caramel and various other savory-sweet combinations. (If you've ever had a Hershey's Take 5 bar, you know how good this odd-sounding combo really is.)

    One reason for the Great Salt Epidemic is that no one has developed a viable salt substitute. If you want to cut sugar, no problem. There's Sweet'n Low, NutraSweet and Splenda and more varieties on the horizon. The sugarless York Peppermint Patties are so good that I don't remember what the real ones taste like. But what are you supposed to replace salt with? Pepper? And so our sodium intake snowballs. The saltier foods are, the more we like them. And the more we like them, the more salt we get.

    Like attention, praise and porn, salt is one of those instant gratifiers that are easy to get too much of and hard to get by without. The National Salt Reduction Initiative — a public-private partnership that was started in New York City and recently signed on 16 U.S. food companies, including Kraft, Heinz and Boar's Head — is modeled on a voluntary initiative in the United Kingdom, where foodmakers have reduced the sodium in some products by more than 40%. Of course, they didn't have to contend with the American palate. The country-fried-steak dinner at Denny's has more than 3,600 mg of sodium, roughly the equivalent of 24 strips of bacon. Seriously? I think we can be trained to get by with 15 or 20.