When, back in the 1980s, celebrity chef Nico Ladenis refused to put salt on his restaurant tables, it caused a national outcry. How dare he challenge our right to make with the shaker? Ladenis was unmoved, sending up an entire sack of salt to a diner who complained. But while the chef showed all the tact of a brick wall, as a cook, I feel some of his pain – it’s soul-destroying to watch a guest instinctively grinding salt over a carefully seasoned dish without even tasting it first.
Health experts have long insisted we need to cut back on salt, and we've known for a while that excess salt in processed food and ready meals is a problem. But a study earlier this year by Tulane University in New Orleans found that shaking on the salt at the table is a big issue too. Compared with those who usually added salt to food, people who rarely or never added salt had a 23 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, a 26 per cent lower risk of coronary heart disease and a 37 per cent lower risk of heart failure.
Back in 2010 the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published a report recommending reducing salt in our diets with the aim of achieving an average intake of 6g/day in 2015 and 3g/day in 2025. But salt targets for manufacturers are voluntary, and recent research from Oxford University shows that their use of salt hasn’t gone down significantly since 2015. On an individual level, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, we consume 8.4g every day – 9.2g a day for men and 7.6g a day for women, an amount that hasn’t changed significantly since the survey began in 2008.
Like many cooks, I’d be lost without the balance that a modicum of salt gives to dishes. Thankfully, Professor Lu Qi, who headed the Tulane study, isn’t suggesting we ditch added salt altogether. “Reducing additional salt to food, not removing salt entirely, is an incredibly modifiable risk factor that we can hopefully encourage our patients to make without much sacrifice,” says Lu Qi. By going easy with the table salt, we can live longer. Nico Ladenis, by the way, is going strong at 88.
How to add less salt at the table
Adding salt shouldn’t be a reflex action: taste before you reach for the salt cellar. Consider adding alternatives to the table condiments too.
It’s long been know that MSG or monosodium glutamate, glutamate salts which enhance savoury or ‘umami’ flavours, can make food taste punchier. As a white powder, this is used widely in Asian and South American cooking where many kitchens will have a shaker of both salt and MSG. MSG contains sodium, but less sodium than salt, so using it to bring out the flavour of your food may mean you take in less sodium.
But MSG is a culinary bogeyman in the West, where it is considered an additive used to compensate for poor quality ingredients, adding a sameness to the flavour of processed food. It’s been blamed for symptoms including headaches, although research has failed to find a link. Here are some alternatives to add umami and cut the salt in your food:
Soy sauce – naturally high in glutamates, it does many of the same jobs as MSG, but without the weird ultra-processed food connotations. I rate the Kikkoman low-salt soy sauce for more savoury punch with less salty kick.
Yondu – a Korean invention, like a lighter version of soy sauce, made from fermented soy beans and vegetable broth. It’s a good alternative, especially for non-Asian recipes, as it doesn’t have the distinctive sweet caramel notes of soy sauce.
Liquid aminos – another fermented soy sauce. Braggs brand, made in the USA, is the market leader. It’s got a faintly boozy flavour.
Asian fish sauce – made from fermented fish rather than soy, but still high in natural glutamates, with a tangy, briny quality. Generally best in seafood dishes.