It’s hard to imagine sitting down for a meal without the omnipresent duo of salt and pepper shakers. As one half of this venerable partnership, salt is a mineral that has held great importance over its long history. Over the years salt has been put to use in a myriad of ways - it has functioned as currency, has been prized as a preservative, and has been a valued flavoring agent in food. Perhaps the most important function of salt is the vital role it plays in our own bodies - sodium is needed to help control the blood’s pH levels, supports the nervous system’s electrical signaling, and aids in the body’s regulation of water content. Animals in nature are often drawn to salt licks to maintain their sodium intake. Humans, however, are more than likely to meet (and exceed) the body’s basic needs for sodium in their everyday diet. In fact, our species over consumption of salt threatens to tip the delicate balance of sodium intake toward its negative manifestations - water retention, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Just what drives us to this over consumption? It seems that our palates are hardwired to crave the flavor of salt, a holdover from a time when the crucial mineral wasn’t as easily obtainable. One of the five basic flavors sensed by the human palate (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami), salt has an interesting effect upon the tongue’s perception of other flavors. In many cases, salt acts as an enhancer, both amplifying and unifying the taste of a dish. It also suppresses the tongue’s experience of unpleasant bitter and metallic flavors. Just how can we overcome this innate desire to oversalt our food? Studies have shown that dishes incorporating other flavoring agents, such as herbs, vinegar, and citrus, lowered the palate’s cravings for sodium. Thus, a healthy sodium intake is best supported by a diet that includes a wide range of flavors - allowing the palate to achieve a salty balance that doesn’t undermine the well being of the body as a whole.