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Salt, health's silent enemy

Sumito Estévez's picture

También disponible en español

Também disponível em português

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This year, World Health Day focuses on hypertension. Specialists report a clear link between excessive salt consumption and high blood pressure. In this blog, Venezuelan chef Sumito Estévez explains how the use of salt in our cooking has changed. He also shares some ideas for reducing salt consumption and reminds us that governments are also responsible for taking measures to decrease consumption.

Coq Au Vin (Chicken in red wine) is a delicious traditional French dish. Those who have had the privilege of preparing this slow-cooked recipe know that once the sauce has thickened, practically no extra salt is needed.

This recipe illustrates how salt is everywhere. In the wine in the sauce. On the sautéed vegetables. On the chicken legs. Once reduced, the sauce has concentrated salt in all of its ingredients. 

Salt is essential for life, but it is a double-edged sword. It can also kill.

According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the world. That great Angel of Death rides in on a horse called hypertension. 

Although the exact causes of hypertension are unknown, many studies indicate that up to a third of cases are due to excess salt consumption.

Worse still, recent studies have found that excess consumption causes the body to attack itself in a type of immune response rebellion. This translates to dreadful diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Simply put: more than five grams of salt a day kills. And it does so quickly. 

Silent plague

One of the great ironies behind this silent plague that is killing so many is that in the 20th century, we had managed to sharply cut salt consumption.

In the 19th century, the daily diet was extremely salty. Before the mass transport of foods and the invention of refrigeration, salt and dehydration were the most frequently used preservatives.

Coincidentally, as I write this article, my daughter brought home a big bag of potato chips. When I read the label, I discovered that the product contained six grams of salt – 20% more than her recommended daily allowance!

While the nutritional information on the packet in question stated that it was for 19 servings, I watched nervously as my daughter and her boyfriend ate the whole bag while watching television.

Although the giant containers of over-salted popcorn we buy at the movie theater are purportedly for six people, we finish them off. There is nothing more euphemistic and useless than a nutritional label for junk food.

The problem is that salt is addictive and encourages increased consumption. The food industry has known this for a long time.

A less salty life

Once our young tastebuds become accustomed to extremely salty foods, it is very difficult to go back because everything seems bland. Fortunately, just as we are able to rapidly develop a taste for excess salt, detoxing from the vice does not take long.

People who attempt to use less salt at first complain that what they eat “doesn’t taste like anything” but they soon begin to discover flavors that had previously eluded them.

At a household level, the solution lies in two obvious steps: understanding that excessive salt consumption can have dangerous consequences; and deciding to consume less salt, which at first is as difficult as overcoming any other vice.

Gastronomically speaking, there are tricks to reducing salt consumption, for example by using more aromatic herbs in food, reducing sauces before thickening them, buying smaller packages of junk food or decreasing the use of preserved foods (cheeses, olives, bacon, anchovies, etc.) in recipes.

However, the long-term solution is in government hands. 

The best-known example is Finland, that has implemented an education campaign since 1975. The campaign has led to an average salt reduction of 22% among men and 43% among women in just one generation.

Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, is another interesting case. Restaurants in the city are prohibited from placing salt shakers on tables. This is a smart move since it is well known that – with a salt shaker around – people addicted to salt tend to add it even before tasting their food.

A five-member household should consume no more than 750 grams of salt per month (this figure includes cheeses, cold cuts, canned goods, etc.). If your family is having more than that amount, I’ll tell it like it is: you are reducing your life expectancy. Fortunately, the solution is simple…and less bland that it may seem.