Salt’s Fat Chance

Salt. iStockphoto.

Salt, a precious commodity since ancient history and the most abundant non-metallic mineral in the world, has recently come under attack from public-health practitioners. iStockphoto.

Will salt replacements prove similarly chastening? Salt, found in nearly every recipe and food product, contributes texture and structure in baked goods, controls spoilage in packaged foods, and regulates fermentation in pickled items. It maintains color and emulsification in everything from salami to sorbet.

Several supply companies have developed salt alternatives, usually based on salty-tasting potassium chloride blended with agents to mask its unpleasantly metallic flavor. But potassium chloride could be toxic to people with kidney disease who are advised to avoid both sodium chloride and potassium, raising questions about the need for new labeling rules. Some food technologists have reduced salt content by using specifically shaped or positioned salt crystals. Others have proposed replacing salt with hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extracts, and other sources of glutamates and aspartic acid. But none of those products can replace salt’s functional attributes in baked, frozen, fermented, emulsified, and other processed foods.

Individuals are often frustrated when nutritional villains are acquitted. Woody Allen’s character in the film Sleeper wakes from a 200-year coma in the year 2173 and requests something called wheat germ, along with organic honey and tiger’s milk for breakfast. The attending doctor is baffled, but a colleague with some knowledge of medical history informs her that those were the “charmed substances” once thought to contain life-preserving properties. “You mean there was no deep fat?” she asks incredulously.“ No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?” Her colleague responds with a bemused shrug. “Those were thought to be unhealthy. Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

We are not likely to find out, as Allen’s character did, that smoking is healthful, too. But when reengineering food on a broad scale, we should constantly be aware that we might be totally wrong or that the solution might be worse than the problem. Consumers are advised to take horror stories about food with a grain of salt.

David Schleifer was CHF’s 2008–2009 John C. Haas Fellow in the History of the Chemical Industries. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at New York University, writing a dissertation about how trans fats entered and are exiting the American food system.