By: Alison Dunn Feb 15, 2011
Salt of the earth

I can’t eat corn-on-the-cob without salt. Ditto popcorn and French fries – they just don’t taste the same without it.

We all have foods that we love to sprinkle the white stuff on. For some people, it’s tomatoes, others it’s cucumbers, pickles, mashed potatoes and I even once saw someone sprinkle salt in a beer! Let’s face it: some foods just taste better with a little salt.

But as Canadians, we’re heading for a bit of a salt crisis. February is heart-health month, and as part of that, the team here at Health Local has been researching and writing about all the things that go into keeping our tickers healthy. And one of the biggest recommendations from health experts is that we cut back on our sodium intake.

Why the concern over our salt habits? Study after study has linked increased sodium intake to hypertension – one of the main causes of heart disease and stroke. And survey after survey has found that we Canadians are consuming too much sodium in our daily diet – around 80 per cent of us consume far more than the amount we’re supposed to in one day.

In researching our nutrition story “Stuck on salt?” I asked dietitian and chef Nancy Guppy why she thinks Canadians consume so much salt. She pointed out that while there’s no one answer, part of the problem is that for centuries salt has been a prized possession. In the days before modern technology (like refrigerators), salt is what kept foods fresher for longer. And when we were an agrarian society, working out on the farm from dawn until dusk, we needed that salt to replace our lost electrolytes.

But somehow, the love of salt has stuck – even though our modern lifestyle means we don’t require anywhere near as much salt as we used to. And the salt habit is very hard to break – even knowing the effect too much salt has on our health, I still liberally shake it on that popcorn, corn on the cob and French fries (even when I make the homemade, tossed-in-olive-oil and baked kind).

Why can’t I seem to cut out the salt? According to Guppy, it’s because my tastebuds (and most other Canadians’) have been programmed to crave salt. In all honesty, salt makes food taste better, which is why it’s added to so many processed and packaged foods. But the answer isn’t to go cold-turkey and never eat another processed, packaged food or add any salt every again. Instead, it’s best to cut back on your salt intake slowly so you get used to consuming less of it. That’s certainly a strategy Campbell’s is using in cutting back the sodium found in its soups – the company has committed to reducing sodium intake little by little, so that consumers get used to tasting the OTHER flavours found in their food.

We might be conditioned to eat a lot of salt, but it doesn’t have to be like that forever. You can reprogram your tastebuds to find the other flavours in food and enjoy those just as much.

Maybe I’ll try that next time I eat some French fries. Surely it couldn’t hurt to TRY them without salt. Who knows? Maybe I’ll realize that fresh potatoes cut into wedges with olive oil are delicious even without a sprinkle of salt to be found.

Just don’t ask me to stop salting my corn-on-the-cob!

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.