As any diet-conscious food-lover will attest, striking a balance between good nutrition and great taste can be harder than keeping a good hollandaise sauce from separating. For many chefs, if they could only select two seasonings to use for the rest of their lives, they would invariably be salt and pepper. For those that want or need to avoid sodium, half of that iconic duo poses a big problem: too much salt raises blood pressure, can contribute to kidney disease, and even lead to a stroke. That can be a bitter culinary pill to swallow, but when salt adds so much flavor to dishes, can delicious dishes really go without it?
Thankfully for the innovations of the food industry, you may not have to.
Bananas, Spinach, and…Salt?
Potassium is a familiar nutritional value touted in fruits and vegetables. When it’s isolated and processed a specific way, however, it also makes an excellent substitute for sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt. Potassium as a salt is a little less “salty” tasting than pure sodium chloride, which is why it’s often mixed with sodium chloride to make a palatable, lower-sodium replacement for pure salt. By itself, too much potassium can have a metallic, bitter tang, a description that wouldn’t exactly whet the appetite on a menu.
Part of the reason for the need to “cut” most salt substitutes with salt itself comes from ongoing research efforts on human taste receptors. While the centers for “sweet” and “bitter” are fairly well understood, the centers for “salty” are more elusive – thus far, the potassium has proven to be the best at tricking them into detecting sodium chloride. The only other close taste-substitute for sodium chloride is reportedly lithium, which is actually toxic!
Not a Salty Cure-All
As with most areas of culinary chemistry, it’s not as simple or straightforward as just swapping out potassium for salt. For taste, certainly – there’s that bitter metallic note to worry about – but also for the sake of nutrition and health. Potassium is naturally-occurring in some foods, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone to use as a salt substitute.
Notably, individuals with any kind of kidney issues or taking daily medication will need to follow that often-ignored advice to “consult a doctor before using.” Certain kidney disorders and medications will block or slow the kidneys’ natural ability to excrete potassium, which can spell trouble for individuals using it as freely in place of salt. A low sodium option for some can easily be a troubling medical issue for others.
Still a Healthy Possibility
Sodium chloride, in addition to being excellent for preservation, tastes great to the human tongue. That’s why so much of it is found in prepared or packaged foods, and why it’s used so heavily in restaurants and food service. While some flavors need to be extracted through labor-intensive processes like boiling, simmering, sautéing, and slow-cooking, salt is pretty much the wash-and-wear seasoning of the bunch. It melts easily with liquid contact, it never goes stale or “bad,” and it’s reasonably inexpensive. Unfortunately, it also dehydrates, raises blood pressure, and contributes to serious health problems over a lifetime of consumption. Thankfully, all of the best benefits of salt – including that “instant flavor” that works so well in food – can be found in potassium as well, minus those troubling health issues.
While potassium might never topple the sodium chloride empire entirely, food service use has made it a viable contender in the race for taste bud satisfaction. As potassium use in food service grows, this intriguing substitute has proven itself as, quite literally, “worth its salt.”
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