Salt to taste

Come summers and the role of salt – or sodium – in our food changes from being just a tastemaker to that of keeping us well hydrated and energised. But is there a quantitative measure to how much is good?

According to the DASH Diet – a food system developed by National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) – the daily sodium intake should be less than 2,300 mg a day. The WHO recommends less than 5 g (just under a teaspoon) of salt per day for adults. For kids, however, the rule in both cases, are flexible and needs to be adjusted as per the level of energy or activity. In common parlance, this translates to no more than a teaspoon of salt per day.

And yet, when it comes to the table, most people across cultures, usually unknowingly, consume more than the said amount. Interestingly, not all the sodium intake comes from traditional meals cooked at home or even a conscientious restaurant, but from processed foods such as chips, bakery products, instant noodles, biscuits, preserves and such, which have extra salt (and sugar) both for taste and preservation.

Table salt
The WHO recommends just under a teaspoon of salt per day for adults. But most of us consume a lot more unknowingly, especially through fast food.

So worrisome has been the intake of sodium from these sources lately that the food regulation body, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), has been running a five-year-long regulation campaign that, once implemented, would make it mandatory for brands to spell out the High Fat, Salt and Sugar (HFSS) content on the labels of food products that have children as their main target audience. The would also have to specify fortified elements such as vitamin A, B12 and such that are used as per the norms of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). In fact, the campaign began in 2015, in response to a petition filed by the Uday Foundation for Congenital Defects and Rare Blood Groups ​against the Union of India, demanding more comprehensive action to tackle the issue of ‘junk food’ in the country.

A parallel study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), covering 13,200 children between the ages of 9 and 17, from 300 schools, showed that 93 per cent of children eat packaged food and 68 per cent consume packaged sugar-sweetened beverages more than once a week, while 53 per cent consume these products at least once a day. When it came to adults, the result was equally worrisome. After all, there’s nothing like ripping opening a bag of chips when hungry or to munch on while watching a movie or even ordering a double cheeseburger from your favourite fast food brand.

The issue when ordering such ‘convenient’ food is the sheer amount of sodium that one takes in with a simple order of a burger, which is quadrupled with empty calories when fries and an aerated drink is added. Consider this: an average ‘meal style’ burger from any fast-food brand contains 460mg of sodium. Turn that into a cold meat sandwich and the sodium content rises to 1200mg. That is easily half a day’s worth of recommended sodium levels consumed in just a few bites. And the more you take, at a base level, the more water retention occurs, which shows up as bloating and on the higher side, as blood pressure, that can lead to, according to Medline, “cardiac failure, liver cirrhosis, and kidney disease, to name a few”.

This is not just the case with fast food; meat preparations often tend to be more generous with salt than perhaps a dish made of vegetables. Take steak, for instance, which uses a decent amount of salt before it’s thrown onto a grill or a heated pan. Likewise, Indian foods such as some of the boti or fish preparations, work on the magic of salt. “In fact”, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), “when you come down to measure salt in our food, which is a combination of sodium, iodine and other minerals, we are often on the higher side when it comes to cooking since each of our dishes uses salt in at least one stage (dal, curries, stir fries) and doubly so when it is used in marination and seasoning. In that manner of speaking, the salt intake in India is higher than elsewhere and during summers, it does increases courtesy the hot-humid climate we stay in, which means we are constantly losing water, minerals and to some extent, sodium as well.”

“The extra salt”, adds nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “is needed as it ensures there is enough water retained in the body so that blood flow is regulated, keeping muscle cramps and dehydration at bay. In fact, every time you feel this intense thirst or have a cramp, it is the body’s way of communicating a serious deficiency in sodium, mineral and pH levels, that is blocking the movement of blood in the body.”

Concurs Reebok Master Trainer, Vinata Shetty, who often finds that the issue with sodium mismanagement in the body isn’t a result of less or more intake, but rather, wrong manner of consumption. “Given the climatic conditions in India, we need to regulate not just sodium intake but the way we consume it, to ensure deficiencies are taken care of. And one place to start managing your sodium intake is to find alternatives to not just salt but also foods that are rich in salt such as leafy vegetables, fruits and such, which are rich in soluble sodium – and then alternate it with potassium so there is a balance of minerals in the body. Another aspect is how often one should replenish and in which fashion, which also depends on the level of activity and the humidity in the atmosphere.”

The experts add that people may need different levels based on the region they live in. Those in the dry weather of the north would need medium levels, while those close to the coast with high humidity conditions, would need to stock up on sodium, taken not just from salt but different methods.

“This”, continues Chef Sharad, “is one of the reasons that in eastern India, people don’t just rely heavily on fish and leafy vegetables for mineral intake, but have also devised enough fermented dishes that help take care of the body’s water and salt levels, which is important to keep blood flow regulated.”

In fact, the body needs sodium and potassium to manage the essential thyroid hormones, namely thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which balance the working of the brain and physical attributes in infants and kids, along with metabolic activity in adults. Bhassin adds, “We constantly crave something savoury during summers and find a glass of Sikanji, Bael Panna, Kanji and even orange juice peppered with black salt not only refreshing but also absolutely energising.”

Pink salt
Sendha or pink salt, used in Indian cooking, achieves the same flavour profile as table salt, except that it has lower levels of sodium.

In terms of food, the same result is achieved when we have a balanced salad – even kachumber – or kadi that contains salt not just as a taste enhancer but also as a significant fortification, especially the iodised cooking salt, says Chef Abhishek Gupta (Executive Sous Chef, The Leela Ambience Delhi). Chef Gupta has studied the different salts used in traditional cooking and has realised how our food does the perfect balancing act of using two sources of sodium to aid regulation in the body. “Indian cooking primarily uses three kinds of salt – cooking salt which is fortified with iodine that ensures that the body flushes out extra sodium in the body, sendha and black salt, which are rich sources of potassium in our diet. While each of these play a significant role in lending taste, sendha or pink salt achieve the same flavour profile but without the extra sodium. Consequently, it enables us to create a dish according to the palate craving, without overdosing.”

“Inside the body”, adds Bhassin, “the potassium plays a key role in ensuring that the body doesn’t retain water and functions well by regulating T3 and T4.”

Which brings us to the important question: How much salt is enough? Experts agree that there is no standard recommended figure for our salt consumption. It depends on the weather, lifestyle and metabolic system. A good place to start is by paring down sodium that isn’t coming from a natural source, such as processed foods. Try getting a fair share from fruits, vegetables and seafood, and when salt is needed, look for the lower sodium varieties for drinks, salads and others, and regular salt for seasoning food.

Remember, while sodium and potassium are important to regulate the thyroid gland, it is iodine that has the power to push excess sodium out of the body. So, have that salt. Just wisely.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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