with a grain of salt.
and health aspects of the use of salt)
Canadian Chemical News;
4/1/2002; Schwarcz, Joe
processed food industry loves
salt. Sodium chloride is cheap, allows water to be
retained, acts as a preservative and enhances flavor. As one
salt promoter says,
"salt is what
makes things taste bad when it isn't in them." True enough. The
human craving for
partially be explained by our physiological need for sodium. Without it,
our nerve cells can't transmit electrical impulses, our muscles can't
contract properly and our body
fluids go out of kilter. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that 'salty'
is one of the basic human
tastes. But salt
does more than just add 'saltiness' to food, it can also modify the way
we perceive the other common tastes, namely sour, bitter and sweet.
inhibits bitterness and can enhance sweetness. That's why you'll find
salt in such
unlikely foods as chocolate, apple pie and breakfast cereals. Indeed,
studies have shown that consumer acceptance drops dramatically when
salt levels in
processed foods decline. That would explain the popularity of foods such
as dill pickles, hot dogs, sauerkraut, vegetable juices, cottage cheese,
olives, canned soups and pizza which can have up to a gram of
salt per serving. It
isn't hard to see how the recommended intake of six grams a day can be
was the first seasoning used by our ancestors. They got it by
evaporating seawater, or by mining it. The origin of
salt deposits in the
ground can also be traced back to oceans which no longer exist, so that
basically all salt
is 'sea salt.'
was mined near Salzburg ('The City of
Salt') in Austria as
early as 6500 B.C. and the ancient Romans built large evaporation ponds
by the sea to collect salt.
In fact the Romans prized salt
so much that soldiers were given a special allowance, known as the
'salarium' to purchase it. Our word 'salary' of course derives from this
Latin expression. Salt
was deemed so important that spilling it was thought to foster bad luck
by attracting malevolent spirits. Tossing a little
salt over the shoulder
was the antidote! The grains of
salt were supposed to
lodge in the spirit's eyes and distract him from the evil he was
planning. Spilled salt
as an omen of bad things to come was an enduring belief. Da Vinci s
'Last Supper' clearly shows an overturned
salt container in fro
nt of Judas, foreshadowing his betrayal of Jesus.
wasn't only for its taste that
salt was so prized. It
was also for its preservative value. When the
a bacterial or fungal cell is higher than inside it, water is drawn out
of the cell to reduce the outside
process of 'osmosis dehydrates the cell and eventually destroys it.
That's why salt
was commonly rubbed into wounds to reduce the chance of bacterial
infection. Of course this also disturbs tissue cells and causes the
irritation we associate with 'rubbing
salt into a wound.'
Meat used to be preserved by soaking it in a brine solution or by
covering the surface with whole grains of
salt which were known
as "corn," hence the origin of corned beef.
the most unusual use of salt
as a preservative was devised in 17th century England when heads of
executed villains were put on public display to deter other criminals.
The problem was the heads would quickly rot and attract birds which
would strip off the flesh leaving behind a clean skull, which apparently
was less frightening. The answer to this little problem was to boil the
heads in salt
water so they would not putrefy!
rogues were salted after death. But what about the possibility of
salting bringing on death? Our
body tries to maintain
a certain concentration
of sodium in the blood. If the amount of sodium rises, more water has to
be retained to maintain the same
means that the blood volume increases and that there is more blood for
the heart to pump around the
body. The pressure the blood exerts against the walls of
the arteries increases and this can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
But if less sodium is taken in, less water is retained, and blood
pressure should go down. "Go easy on the
salt," is the
physician's advice if high blood pressure has been diagnosed.
Numerous studies have shown that about fifty percent of these patients
respond to a low sodium diet. Why not all of them? Because in reality
the situation is more complicated than just a simple balance between
sodium and water. Calcium and potassium play important roles as well. In
fact many researchers now believe that increasing potassium and calcium
intake is as important as reducing sodium intake for people suffering
from high blood pressure. This means more skim milk, more bananas, more
Schwarcz, MCIC is the director of McGill University's Office for
Chemistry on d Society. You con contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
no one disputes the low-sodium diet for people with high blood pressure,
experts bicker when it comes to making recommendations for the public at
large. Some say that asking everyone to try to reduce their
salt intake from about
nine to six grams a day is not based on science. I think they are wrong.
Many people have undiagnosed high blood pressure and would benefit from
intake. Experiments with chimps have shown that as
salt in the diet is
increased, blood pressure goes up.
Human epidemiologic al
studies have shown the same thing. Populations with low
salt intake have lower
blood pressure. The Yanomani Indians of Brazil add no
salt to their food and
hypertension is unknown, in spite of being surrounded by poisonous
snakes, bugs and researchers constantly wanting to measure their blood
pressure. By contrast, North Americans with their penchant for salty hot
dogs, chips and pizza are in the midst of a hypertension epidemic.
Whether a reduced salt
diet lowers blood pressure in people who do not have high pressure to
start with is irrelevant. Eating fewer salty processed foods
automatically leads to a healthier diet. I'm sure that spokespeople for
the influential Salt
Institute, an organization which promotes the use of
salt, will dispute
this. But I would take their comments with a grain of
COPYRIGHT 2002 Chemical Institute of Canada
The above article is from
Chemical News, April 1, 2002.