Wednesday, March 23

So, what's with Truffle and this salt thing?

Regular readers might have heard my rant about there being too much salt in food, in restaurant food in particular. Since it's World Salt Awareness Week, I thought I'd take the opportunity to explain.

As I've said before, many restaurants over-salt their food, either because they're trying to cover up the tastelessness of poor ingredients, or because they've just gotten used to cooking that way. As restaurant-goers' palates become used to having a lot of salt in what they eat, the demand seems to be going up in an ever increasing spiral.

Just say 'no' (photo source)

Like the rest of life, there is never an up without a down (a version of Newton's Third Law), and there are health consequences to having too much of this stuff in your diet. Seriously, a list of the side effects reads like a Who's Who of undesirable health conditions: heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, stomach cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, dementia, a predisposition to diabetes and Alzheimer's... the list goes on. But in this day and age, when we're being warned of so many dangers posed by so many things (salt, cholesterol, alcohol, etc.), it can be hard to keep on top of what's at risk of causing what, and why it is exactly that too much salt isn't ideal. From reading around, here are some key facts:

High blood pressure

The body is one huge chemical balancing act, and the kidney is no exception. This organ is basically a filtration plant, and it cleans our blood using a system of relative concentrations (between the blood flowing into the kidney and ... other fluids). When the blood stream has too much sodium as a result of excess salt intake, this upsets the chemical balance - the kidneys aren't able to function as well, and there is excess fluid in the blood stream. This leads to high blood pressure. And high blood pressure is the starting point for all of the other problems.

Heart Disease

Coronary arteries - the arteries that provide blood and oxygen to the heart itself - seem to be pretty delicate for such an important job! High blood pressure over a long period puts a lot of strain on the walls of these arteries. The body's reaction is then to harden up and narrow these walls in defence. We all know where this can lead.

Another perhaps lesser known consequence of sustained high blood pressure (or hypertension) is damage to the heart's valves (which keep blood flowing in one direction only). When the valves malfunction, blood doesn't circulate around the body properly. Cinnamon and I have seen what it takes to deal with a malfunctioning heart valve (in fact, it's the reason we were both recently in Singapore), and it's sobering.


Arteries in the brain are at similar risk from high blood pressure. In this case, long-term damage can result in blood flow to the brain being reduced or blocked.


All sound a bit of a downer? Well, I figure the positive side is that it's not like air pollution, and we're in control of how much salt goes into our food (and the resulting impact on our health). In line with Cinnamon's Incrementalism, I guess the first step is awareness, and once we're aware of the issue, we can make whatever choices best suit our objectives.

What then? 

There are two schools of thought on salt. One follows a 13th Century Tamil poet and moralist whose verdict on unsalted food was "Throw it in the trash!"  (Harsh, I know. Can you imagine what her verdicts on other moral problems must have been?) The other school recommends not using salt at all, and seasoning your food with herbs and lemon.

Given that we don't want to be extreme, I prefer to have a little bit of salt in my food (and also add other seasonings to improve the flavour profile). And I'd prefer it if restaurants didn't add so much salt, so that I can decide for myself how much I want. At the end of the day, shouldn't it be up to diners how much goes in?



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