The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Thoughts On the New Salt Guidelines

Take Them With a Grain of Salt

Every five years, the Federal Food Folks get together and decide how we should all be eating. And every five years we ignore them and continue to eat what we want. But if it makes them feel useful, who am I to argue?

That's pretty much my take on the new governmental restrictions on salt. According to the most recent guidelines set forth by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, anyone over fifty-one years of age, all African-Americans regardless of age, and people suffering from hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should reduce their daily sodium intake to about a half-teaspoon per day.

In the first place, all this is not that new. Salt restrictions have been around for a long time. I remember when they restricted the salt in my grandfather's diet back in the early '60s. And you know what? A year or so later, he died anyway. At age 85. He was a restaurant cook, and he went out complaining about the godawful bland food he was being forced to eat.

Now, I'm not going to get all “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” on you. I'm not going to espouse a fatalistic lifestyle that says we're all going to die of something anyway. But I do believe that enjoying good food is an essential part of enjoying a good life. What was better for poor Grandpa? To be dead but happy a year earlier, or to live the extra year miserable and complaining? It's the old argument that pits length of life against quality of life.

Perhaps a little paraphrasing of Billy Joel to illustrate the point:
“I'd rather dine with the sinners
than starve with the saints.”

I do listen to you, Federal Food Folks, I really do. I'm over fifty-one and am mildly hypertensive. And my salt intake is w-a-a-a-ay less than it was back in the callow days when I used to just upend the salt shaker over my scrambled eggs. Nowadays, I barely give it a tap or two. Once upon a time I would put three of those little packets of salt on an order of fast food French fries. Today, I don't salt them at all. (Of course, according to the aforementioned Food Folks, I shouldn't be eating them at all, but that's another topic entirely.)

I appreciate the position the Federal Food Folks are in. They do what they do because idiots abound in our society. And they are litigious idiots. “Well, nobody TOLD me that dumping tablespoonfuls of salt on everything I ate was gonna jack up my blood pressure and shut down my kidneys. If I live, I'm gonna sue somebody!” Hence the government recommendations that we all eat like sheep and rabbits.

But, folks, I'm here to tell you that salt is an essential nutrient. And I'm not using “essential” in a hyperbolic sense. No. In this instance, “essential” means “necessary to life.” Scientifically speaking, an essential nutrient is one which the human body requires for life and health but cannot produce for itself. Salt, or sodium chloride, is one such nutrient. The “sodium” part is the body's major electrolyte responsible for regulating water balance, pH, and osmotic pressure. It is also important in nerve conduction. “Chloride” preserves the body's acid-base balance. It aids in potassium absorption and supplies the basic building blocks for digestive stomach acid. Chloride also helps the blood carry carbon dioxide to the lungs. So can you really just eliminate salt from your diet? Not so much.

Of course, too much of anything – even essential anythings – can be detrimental to your health. You can, for instance, drink too much water. And you can certainly consume too much salt. The dancing on the head of a pin comes in determining how much is “too much?” The short answer, of course, is, “It depends.” It depends on your overall diet. It depends on your level of activity. It depends on your metabolism. It depends on a lot of things, and since governments tend to govern from the general rather than the specific point of view, government guidelines are often overarchingly broad.

Historically, nutritionists and medical researchers have determined that a range between 2,300 mg and 4,600 mg of salt per day is the accepted dietary level. This equals between one and two-and-a-half teaspoons per day. Most Americans consume right about 3,500 mg/day, smack in the middle of the range. And they have done so with very little variation for as long as accurate medical evaluations have been available.

Now, some people do have to be more careful than others, which, I suppose, is the point of the new guidelines. But less than a half-teaspoon? Come on! Get real. Go measure that out and look at it. Go ahead. I'll wait.

There. See what I mean? Ridiculous. And that's for the whole day, mind you, including everything you stick in your face from breakfast to lunch to dinner and all the in between snacks. Solid and liquid. Good luck with that one, Federal Food Folks.

Okay, because I'm in the target group and easily frightened by the trumpets of impending doom, I'll probably make that one tap on the salt shaker instead of two. But I'm not gonna show the little girl with the umbrella the door and I'm not gonna go out like Grandpa did. The extra couple of days aren't worth it. I like salt and I like what it does for my food. Make that my epitaph, if need be.

Since the new guidelines include an admonition to reduce or eliminate salt in cooking and to ask restaurants not to add salt to the food they serve, I brought the topic up with a few chefs and cooks of my acquaintance. They were nearly universal in their hostility toward governmental interference in their kitchens.

You can't cook without salt. Period. You can throw in other spices, herbs, acids, etc. all day long and you will never – I repeat, never – impart the same flavor to food that salt does. In spite of the many salt substitutes on the market, there is no substitute for salt.

When I asked Bobby Flay about salt, he was pretty definite in his opinion. “I have to cook with salt. I have to. We don't want to eat bland food, and the only way you can add natural flavor to food is with salt. There's a study out that says something along the lines of seventy-seven percent of our salt intake is from processed foods. Just five percent of it is from seasoning in restaurants. So, I think they're just throwing a bunch of figures at everybody and scaring them to death and saying, 'If you keep putting salt on your food, you're just going to die of a heart attack. Period.' To me, that means we should stop using alcohol in the entire country – you know, we should just stop doing everything that we like to do. Obviously, I don't believe that. I think that we need to moderate what we do. But I don't think they really know the true effect of salt when it's being administered to real food.”

Chef Jacob Burton opines, “No salt! What? Did they tell Picasso no brush? All the high end acids in the world could never take the place of salt. I am by no means the best chef in the world, but you put me head to head in a cooking contest with any "fill in the blank" best chef with the only stipulation being that I can use salt and he/she can't, and I'll win hands down every single time.”

Absurd,” said an Italian chef I know. “So my restaurant should stop serving prosciutto, cheese, bread, salami, pasta ...?! Absolutely pazzo! Salt is an essential ingredient in almost everything I cook. No Italian restaurant can operate under such crazy restrictions.”

One of my baker friends adds, “Have your ever made bread or cookies and forgotten to put the salt in? There are some things – especially in baking – that you physically, chemically cannot accomplish without salt.”

Others, noting that the “experts” claim people “will get used to” the taste of unsalted food, objected to the overall “dumbing down” of the American palate. We're hardwired to crave salt because it's something our body absolutely must have, and you know it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Most chefs were pretty adamant about not changing the way they run their kitchens. They were downright Vulcan about the whole thing, believing that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In other words, “I'm cooking good food for the masses. If you have a specific need, I'll do my best to accommodate you, but I'm not going to serve sub-par food to everybody just to satisfy a few.”

And most, like Bobby Flay, take dead aim at the processed food industry, citing that entity as the main reason too many people are getting too much salt. That 77% vs 5% statistic that Bobby quoted comes from the Mayo Clinic, and they're pretty unequivocal on the subject, stating, “The vast majority of dietary sodium comes from eating foods that are processed and prepared.”

Read your labels, folks. There's 950 mg of sodium in a can of Franco-American/Campbell's Spaghetti. There's your half-teaspoon for the day right there. Or maybe you'd prefer a can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup? A mere 890 mg. Do you like Kikkoman Soy Sauce? Hope you like those 920 mg of sodium per tablespoon. How about a nice refreshing Coca-Cola? How about a nice refreshing 80 mg of sodium per 20 ounce bottle? Oooh! Here's a healthy one: There are only 650 calories in a Swanson Hungry-Man Roasted Turkey Breast with Gravy & Stuffing, Mashed Potatoes, Vegetables & Cranberry Sauce dinner. But check out those 3,140 mg of sodium! And these are all the national name brands, boys and girls. Most cheap store brands and generics are often even higher in sodium because they dump more salt in to disguise the poorer quality ingredients they use.

Be that as it may, the consensus among people in the restaurant biz is that because Big Food has Big Lawyers, it's easier for Uncle Sam to target the little guy with the corner diner than it is to go after the real source of the problem. And since the Federal Food Folks can't seem to successfully regulate what those Big Food manufacturers foist off on consumers, they settle for scaring the bejeebers out of home cooks by making them believe that they're killing off their families with every morsel of salt they put in the meat loaf.

And where are the government restrictions regarding our intake of high fructose corn syrup, hmmm? Maybe the salt industry needs to hire the same lawyers, lobbyists, and marketing firms employed by the Corn Refiners Association.

Don't panic. Just take the new guidelines with a grain of salt. Should you cut back? Probably. Should you do so by employing Draconian measures like throwing away your salt shaker and banning salt in restaurants. Certainly not! Can you accomplish your goal by reducing your intake of sodium-heavy processed foods? Ding, ding, ding, ding! Give that man a Kewpie doll! And you can definitely control the amount of salt you put in or on foods you prepare yourself. Taste it. If it needs salt, add only what it needs. If it doesn't need salt, leave it alone.

Cook fresh, eat fresh and use moderation and common sense in all things. Did I mention my great-grandmother who lived to see a hundred years but who never saw a food guideline in her entire life? Salt that away as food for thought.

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