We are constantly warned to cut back on salt. But Joanna Blythman believes that this essential ingredient has been unfairly damned.
Salt sales stall
We now eat far less salt than we ever did: British consumption fell 11% between 2005 and 2014. But latest figures show that the momentum for reduction has stalled over the past three years. The average adult still consumes 8g of salt a day, and the Government wants us to get that figure down to only 6g. Lowering intake lessens our risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease, or so we have been told.
But new research is challenging the evidence base for this long-standing advice. In 2014, a major review of data on salt and health concluded that we have been preoccupied with the wrong white crystals, suggesting that: ‘Clinicians should shift focus away from salt and focus greater attention to the likely more consequential food additive: sugar.’ Radically reducing our salt intake can actually be quite risky, it seems. Last year, a study of 100,000 people found that those who followed guidelines on eating less salt actually had more heart trouble than those who didn’t.
A sprinkling of flavour
Reading this, you may feel like throwing your hands in the air in frustration as yet another healthy-eating ‘fact’ bites the dust. But for me, this apparently heretical rebuttal of anti-salt gospel makes sense. Being Scottish, I was brought up with quite assertively salted food. I’m one of those people who find low-salt bread or porridge unappealingly bland. I enjoy the crunchy sea salt crystals on top of my focaccia, and regularly use small amounts of intensely salty ingredients, like capers, soy sauce and anchovies, to add vivid flavour accents to my food.
For a while I went along half-heartedly with salt reduction advice, but when I discovered that 75% of the salt Britons eat was in processed food, I relaxed again. We eat mainly home-cooked food prepared from whole, real ingredients. Brought up this way, my children soon found the taste of convenience food larger than life and pretty fake by comparison, and not just because it’s often so crazily salty. Stock cubes, for instance, are definitely labour-savers, but when you’re accustomed to homemade stock, they can leave you gasping with thirst.
Of course, we do eat things like oatcakes, bacon and cheese that contain salt, but otherwise I control our salt intake by adding sea salt flakes or crystals with my fingers. I prefer them to the standard free-flowing, highly refined salt; it’s much easier to use too much of it, I find. I’m just not convinced that using salt in this fairly controlled, case-by-case basis is harmful. It seems to me that this natural, traditional flavour enhancer has been damned unfairly because of its association with high-tech processed foods that use palate-tricking additives, and shockingly high amounts of added sugar, to manipulate our tastebuds. To me, seasoning food with salt is one of the cook’s key skills. Not too much, but not too little either – that’s the knack.
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