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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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Selling salt, one con at a time

Michael Moss’s new investigative piece,   “The Hard Sell on Salt” at the New York Times, traces the strategies used by the processed food industry over the past 30 years or more to fight any regulation on the amount of salt they dump into everything.

I have wondered for years why TV chefs (Moss ticks Alton Brown on this for having shilled in an ad for Cargill, a major salt producer), the Culinary Institute of America, big-name restaurant chefs and their fans (prominently Michael Ruhlman), and the food processing industry have all pushed salt so hard and why the discussion about reducing salt always, always turns to “what can we substitute” rather than “why not just leave it out.”

It’s not as if any of these players, other than the actual salt production companies, have an intrinsic mission that requires them to sell salt.

Moss turns up a few of the answers. Not surprisingly, products like low-salt tomato sauce require actual fresh ingredients (vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh herbs) to make up the difference in flavor from the current formulas for salted jar sauces, which contain dried herbs and low-grade tomatoes and range from 450-700+ mg. sodium per serving.The low-salt sauces are more expensive to produce. On the other hand, they’re higher quality and they do actually taste good.

But that’s about the simplest case. Tomato sauce actually is made from tomatoes, whether high- or low-grade, and is therefore (if you discount the addition of starch or gum thickeners, sugar or corn syrup, spice “extractives” and preservatives in so many brands) about as close to the actual homemade product as processed food gets. Most of the major processed foods aren’t so recognizable.

Peanut butter should be in the same category as tomato sauce–something with a simple real main ingredient that tastes like what it is. And a number of smaller companies do offer unsalted natural peanut butter–peanuts-only, and it tastes just fine. But the major brands insist that if you take out any of the salt (notably, not “all”) from their formulations, you “have to” add sugar or something else to compensate for the loss of flavor. Read the major brand labels and you realize why: their peanut butters are already mixed with corn syrup sweeteners and solids, gums and emulsifiers and mono- and diglycerides and starches and fillers. The salt is there not so much to highlight the peanuts but to cover all of that extra gunk. You have to wonder whether the nutrition is reduced as well–something like the case of bologna vs. actual meat.

Particularly telling (and entertaining, from my point of view), are the taste consequences of cutting salt in some very popular products:

Even as it was moving from one line of defense to another, the processed food industry’s own dependence on salt deepened, interviews with company scientists show. Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”

I have to admit I really adored that one. My general reaction to things like Lean Cuisine, South Beach Diet, etc microwave meals-for-one is that, with so much sodium per serving (up to 1200 mg or worse) you’d be better off tossing out the “meal” and eating the box. Tastes about the same, salt’s gotta be lower, and at least you’d get some fiber. Now we know it’s true.

As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here. Kellogg’s certainly not the only company that’s been selling Americans the food equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Perhaps all the food execs should be required to eat their own products, without “benefit” of salt, and preferably in front of an FDA regulatory panel or a Congressional committee?

2 Responses

  1. QUOTE:
    “salt also masks bitter flavors”
    AND:
    “My general reaction to things like Lean Cuisine, South Beach Diet, etc microwave meals-for-one is that, with so much sodium per serving (up to 1200 mg or worse) you’d be better off tossing out the “meal” and eating the box.”

    Dang! I actually like the taste of frozen dinners, and I have a refrigerator freezer full of them.

    I’ve been telling myself recently that I should quit buying the frozen dinners, and just buy frozen vegetables without any salt — things like frozen asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

    Jim Purdy

    • Hi Jim! I think Stouffer’s (astonishingly, the lower-salt of the two big US frozen meal barons), Kraft (the higher salt one much of the time) and their peers kind of count on people not putting their own meals together (real meals are not square and don’t stack neatly). See the book review page for “Stuffed” or find the book itself for a fascinating read on the psychology/marketing history of Swanson’s turkey tv dinners. The manufacturers are also right about the high salt fooling most people’s tastebuds–it swamps the taste receptors and probably the nerve cells as well, so you can’t register any of the other flavors accurately. They wouldn’t need it if they didn’t abuse the food in the first place–they’ve processed everything to be able to cook all in the same amount of time. If you cut out all salted stuff or processed food for a couple of weeks, the next time you try one of the box meals you can actually taste what they’re serving you–the first party I went to after doing this experiment I found to my horror I could suddenly taste the MSG on a taco chip. I think we all deserve better, even from our frozen foods. Try fresh or unsalted fresh-frozen vegetables plus fresh or unprocessed (no sodium tripolyphosphate solution etc.) frozen meat in single servings, fish, frozen ravioli without too much sodium or fake stuff, or some of the fresh stuffed pasta in the refrigerator section and be willing to play around with the cooking times until you get what you want. Generally, cook the protein stuff first (unless it’s already cooked and you’re just reheating), then add the vegetables toward the end.

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