One Bland Week on a Low-sodium Diet
Reporter’s Unshakable Thought: This Would Taste Better with Salt
When the federal government released its new dietary guidelines on January 31, The Salt Institute issued a news release with this headline: “New Dietary Guidelines on Salt Drastic, Simplistic, Unrealistic.” We took a little heat from some journalists for that.
So we read with interest the lead article in the February 16 Washington Post Food section titled, “The great shakedown. How a week of sodium intake ran my life.”
We have to hand it to reporter Tim Carman, who spent seven days trying to follow the Dietary Guidelines’ draconian limit of 1,500 mg of sodium for most Americans adults. We know of no others who had the fortitude to attempt this exercise in culinary blandness and dietary denial. What follows are excerpts from Carman’s article , followed by commentary from us here at the Salt Institute (SI).
Carman: “… managing sodium intake requires the sort of endless vigilance that most of us don't seem to have the stomach for. The average American age 2 and older gobbles down more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. The government would like millions of us to shave almost 2,000 milligrams off that number. The new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for nearly half of U.S. residents, those at risk for hypertension and other health problems, to drop their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams, maximum, a day. That's about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt.
“Is that even doable in the sodium-rich playground called America? Just as important: Is it palatable? I decided to give the 1,500-milligram diet a test run for a week.”
SI: Quickly cutting that much salt out of your diet may, in theory, be doable, but, aside from taste considerations, it’s taking a chance with your health. A recent Harvard study links low-salt diets to an immediate increase in insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes.
Carman: “At (chef) Davila-Boldin's urging, I settled for a wan bowl of mustard spaetzle with savoy cabbage, which the kitchen purposely did not finish with its usual teaspoon of salt. If not for the small, selective bursts of mustard and the cabbage-y sweetness of the savoy, the spaetzle surely would have evaporated from sheer blandness. Only later, while talking to Davila-Boldin on the phone, did I learn that a single portion of her dish typically contains at least a quarter-teaspoon of salt, not counting the finishing salt or the sodium found in the Dijon mustard.
" ‘Wow,’ said the chef, after hearing how little sodium I could consume that evening. ‘That's a very, very small amount.’ "
Comment: The chef is correct. If Americans follow the guidelines, we would become the only modern society with salt consumption that low . No other country would be close.
Carman: “Maybe this is subconscious or maybe it's buried deep in my DNA, but in depriving myself of salt, I felt poor - in flavor, definitely, but also perhaps in spirit. As Mark Kurlansky writes repeatedly in his book "Salt: A World History " (Penguin Books, 2002), the now-ubiquitous seasoning was once a prized commodity, one over which countless wars were waged to control its production and distribution. Salt has even been a currency, as if previous civilizations wanted to give this mineral a place of importance inside and outside their bodies.
“All I know is that I drank more wine during this week of deprivation than I have in years.”
SI: The experience the writer had with his “subconscious” was predictable. In fact, some nutritionists think the Dietary Guidelines will worsen, not improve, the obesity crisis because people will consume more calories from other foods and beverages to try to satisfy their innate salt appetite. We have decades of experience with animal feeding as a basis for this statement. If you’re freely feeding cattle expensive feed, you add more salt to satisfy their appetite and limit their intake. If you want them to eat more feed, you cut back on the salt.
Carman: “I explained my situation to the waiter, and before I knew it, executive chef Nicholas Stefanelli had a plan. Part of it was to serve an appetizer of yellowfin tuna carpaccio with segments of blood orange, crunchy spears of fennel, strips of pickled lemon zest and artfully sprinkled fronds of dill. Stefanelli withheld the salt he usually sprinkles on top. When I rolled up a length of the thinly sliced tuna, concealing the toppings like a burrito, I was impressed with the bursts of acid and sweetness that punctuated the fresh, clean fattiness of the fish.
“And I had one unshakable thought: This would taste a lot better with some salt.”
Comment: Nearly everything tastes better with salt. That’s why chefs love it, and why it is history’s all-time No. 1 condiment. To top it off, salt provides no-calorie flavor.
Carman: “Whatever you think of sugar substitutes, they at least provide a sweetness that sort of mimics the original ingredient. Salt substitutes and salt-free seasonings are different beasts altogether. I tried to imagine what my world would be like without salt, based on a small, highly biased experiment with three seasonings: NoSalt, Mrs. Dash Table Blend and Trapani sea salt.
“I bought three cheap strip steaks, one for each of the seasonings. I seared the steaks in a pan, popped them in the oven to finish and sampled the results. The NoSalt steak tasted like bitter metal, if that's even possible, and the Mrs. Dash tasted like stale herbs. And the Trapani? Well, it turned even that overcooked piece of low-grade meat into something savory and semi-satisfying.
“Steak and salt. There is no substitute.”
SI: Unless you have a hankering for bitter metal and stale herbs.
Carman: “Many will tell you that it takes six weeks for your palate to adjust to lower sodium levels. That might be true, but I must admit that even after a week's worth of reduction, I developed a serious appreciation for the small pockets of salt I did encounter, as if my palate were hard-wired to seek out the mineral's many pleasures to ensure my survival (which is sort of the case).”
SI: Listen to what your body is telling you. It’s crying for salt, an essential nutrient.