Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Salt to Taste

I’ve used this blog before to sound off on my views about processed food products, but now I’m coming at ya with an outcry to save one of the great real foods on the planet.

My foodie philosophy is pretty straightforward: eat seasonal real foods from local sources, whenever you can find ‘em and afford ‘em, and avoid junk food in all its veiled forms. This absolutely is the healthiest and most delicious diet. That said, no one’s perfect, and I’m not a purist when it comes to food. Just back from The Buff, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to splurge on certain processed indulgences. Back home, I was served meals I couldn’t refuse and treated to fast food tacos I couldn’t resist, but, as long as I practiced moderation, there was no need to dwell on those missteps. Hell, they weren’t even missteps; sidesteps might be more accurate. As far as I’m concerned, eating “green” is part of a continuum of lifestyle efforts we should all make to do our part to cast consumer votes against the junk food industries that knowingly cause heart disease and the obesity epidemic that is killing this country. Whole, historic, unprocessed, natural, real foods are always better for your body, and they taste better too!

Which is why it makes me so upset and disappointed when these real foods come under fire, and I happen to think we’re in the middle of one such misguided campaign right now. The accused? Salt.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

Salt has been attacked for its supposed negative effects on the nation’s health, and New York City has led this charge with Mayor Bloomberg imploring the food industry to cut salt from menus by 25% by 2014. Because 80% of the salt in American diets comes from processed and restaurant foods, it is reasoned that this initiative to reduce salt in food preparation will help Americans become healthier and lose weight.

The way I see it, salt is the wrong target. The problem lies in the inordinate amount of salt and salt-like chemicals that are used to preserve and enhance otherwise flavorless processed foods, not the salt that is sprinkled into and atop fresh foods. That is a key distinction, and one that vested interests are happy to keep foodies in-the-know from exposing. If too much salt leads to disease, and 80% of the salt in the American diet comes from processed foods, doesn’t it make more sense to cut processed foods, rather than salt, from our diets? The artisan salts used in real food recipes, even those from salt-obsessed chefs like me and Mario Batali, is an infinitesimal fraction of the industrial salts and salt-like substances processed food products rely on to keep people addicted to these low-cost food substitutes that can sit on shelves for months, maybe years at a time, without spoiling. This is not the equivalent of adding a couple tablespoons of kosher salt to your boiling pasta water pot or even toping chocolate chip cookies with fleur de sel.

Photo Courtesy of Sunset

Salted real food recipes are exponentially healthier and more delicious than anything coming out of a commercially processed box of “food” filled with salt preservatives and additives. These products attempt to create artificial flavor experiences where no true, organic flavor exists. Salt is a flavor enhancer, so the right salt variety, in the right recipe, only enhances the flavor experience of a whole foods dish. Packaged, imitation food relies on an excess of salt to keep their food from going bad and tasting like cardboard (or wet dog) as the case may be.

The companies responsible for processed food products are equally responsible for the salt poisoning that’s gotten politicians all riled up. The restaurants serving and markets selling processed foods are just as guilty of this, but it’s easier for politicians to focus on salt than on the processed food industry as a whole…an industry with close links to agribusiness farms that receive government food subsidies for growing the crops from which most processed foods are derived, i.e. corn and soy. These companies lobby to keep their foods in the bellies of even our most fragile, most precious resource, our children, and have gotten rich by making our kids fat and sick. To make matters worse, salt is only part of the problem in these processed junk foods; there are myriad health risks attributed to these food products, which offer little to no known nutritional value. Americans have to cut back on processed foods. Period. Not salt! Exclamation Point.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Salt is a necessary and delicious part of a healthy, real foods oriented diet. Even online classes focusing on healthy cooking teach the importance of proper seasoning with salt in preparing tasty dishes. Stocking a variety of finely harvested salt crystals from around the world is a pantry staple and a FOOD Maven must-have. Salt, like butter, is one of those foods whose subtle varieties add depth of flavor and interest to any dish. From butternut squash soup topped with alderwood smoked salt to shishito peppers garnished with a sprinkling of sea salt, most dishes are enhanced by salt’s touch.

I urge you, go to your local farmers’ market, stock up on seasonal produce, and prepare your finds with nothing more than extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of your favorite artisanal salt. Mine might be the fleur de sel Erin brought back for me from Paris, though the black volcanic salt Nini picked up in Hawaii and Australia’s Murray River pink salt are up there as well. You can easily source all these salts on the internet or your local gourmet grocery store, and as long as you’re eating real foods with real health benefits, you should feel free to salt to taste.

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