Posts Tagged ‘salt’

Flavouring the seasoning gave us the oldest profession

November 20, 2020

Once upon a time, a designated chef at an ancient hominin hearth demanded compensation for his culinary art and started the oldest profession. Cooking predates the oldest cave paintings and may well be the oldest human art form.

Preserving is unambiguous but salting is a word that is rarely used anymore. The distinction in language between seasoning and flavouring is not so much ambiguous as wishful thinking. Theoretically, seasoning is considered the use of additives which allegedly enhance existing flavours, whereas flavouring adds different flavours. In practice this is a nonsense distinction. We have our five or possibly seven basic taste receptors (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami and maybe pungency and a fatty richness) and our olfactory receptors which can distinguish a myriad smells.

Five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savory) are universally recognized, although some cultures also include pungency and oleogustus (“fattiness”). The number of food smells is unbounded; a food’s flavor, therefore, can be easily altered by changing its smell while keeping its taste similar.

Any particular flavour we perceive in our brains is then due to a particular combination of activated taste and smell receptors together. With a change in sufficient activated taste or smell receptors our brains recognize a change in flavour. Generally seasoning involves salt (always) and sometimes some pepper and acidic matter (lime, vinegar, ….). Flavouring is considered predominantly to be through the use of herbs and spices. However, the difference between seasoned and unseasoned is a difference of perceived flavour in our brains. No self-respecting chef will ever admit that seasoning is merely a sub-set of flavouring, but even chefs must be allowed their self aggrandizement.  It is entirely false that proper seasoning cannot be tasted. A lack of salt is perceived when there is a lack of an expected activation of salt receptors. Adding salt always changes the combination of activated receptors and is always a change of flavour. Cook books generally perpetuate the misconceptions.

Canadian Baker 

Many ingredients are used to enhance the taste of foods. These ingredients can be used to provide both seasoning and flavouring.

  • Seasoning means to bring out or intensify the natural flavour of the food without changing it. Seasonings are usually added near the end of the cooking period. The most common seasonings are salt, pepper, and acids (such as lemon juice). When seasonings are used properly, they cannot be tasted; their job is to heighten the flavours of the original ingredients.
  • Flavouring refers to something that changes or modifies the original flavour of the food. Flavouring can be used to contrast a taste such as adding liqueur to a dessert where both the added flavour and the original flavour are perceptible. Or flavourings can be used to create a unique flavour in which it is difficult to discern what the separate flavourings are. 

Seasoning is always about changing perceived flavour and is a particular sub-set of flavouring. The story that seasoning originates with food preservation through the use of salt, whereas the use of herbs and spices for flavouring derives from when hunter-gatherers wrapped food in aromatic leaves for transport is plausible but little more than speculation.  Salt is inorganic and is not considered a spice but is the major ingredient for seasoning as opposed to flavouring. Herbs and spices are always organic and plant-based. (The proposed use of crushed insects as flavouring can safely be ignored. The use of cochineal insects – E120 – to give a carmine food colouring is not relevant.) Yet the manner we use small quantities of salt with foods is much too similar to the manner we use small quantities of herbs and spices not to have been the role-model and the precursor for the culinary use of herbs and spices.

Though this history is as presented by a purveyor of spices, it is both informative and credible.

History of Spices 

Abundant anecdotal information documents the historical use of herbs and spices for their health benefits. Early documentation suggests that hunters and gatherers wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this process enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries, and bark. Over the years, spices and herbs were used for medicinal purposes. Spices and herbs were also used as a way to mask unpleasant tastes and odors of food, and later, to keep food fresh. Ancient civilizations did not distinguish between those spices and herbs used for flavoring from those used for medicinal purposes. When leaves, seeds, roots, or gums had a pleasant taste or agreeable odor, it became in demand and gradually became a norm for that culture as a condiment.

Our taste receptors did not evolve for the purposes of culinary pleasure. Bitterness detection is clearly a defense mechanism. Most animals reject bitter foods as a defense against toxins and poisons. All animals need salt. Mammal brains are designed to prevent a debilitating lack of sodium and have evolved the detection of saltiness as a tool. A craving for salty food has been shown to emerge spontaneously (and not as learned behaviour) with sodium deficiency. This has been shown to apply to many animals including sheep, elephants, moose, and primates who seek out salty food when suffering sodium deficiency. It is very likely that the capability to detect sweetness has also evolved as a way of urgently seeking energy rich foods. Exactly how or why it became important to detect sourness or umaminess is in the realm of speculationVegetarian food contains less salt than meat or fish. Our primate ancestors were mainly vegetarian and, like primates today, would have resorted to eating pith and rotting wood to counter sodium deficiencies. 

Hunger for salt

When multicellular organisms evolved and crawled up the beaches to dry land, they had to take the seawater with them in the blood and other body fluids. The mineral content of human blood plasma today is still much like that of the seas of the Precambrian era in which life arose. …..  And the ancestors of man for at least 25 million of the last 30 million years were almost certainly vegetarians, and therefore got little salt in their diets because most plants store little salt. To compensate for the scarcity of a substance vital to life, the brains of our ancestors and those of other mammals developed powerful strategies for getting and keeping salt. Inborn, Not Learned.

….. sudden improvement after one copious salt meal may also help explain the ritual acts of cannibalism once practiced by tribes in the Amazon jungles, the highland regions of New Guinea and elsewhere. Sometimes the body of a fallen foe was eaten in a final act of triumph and to absorb magically the strength of the defeated enemy. In other cultures, bones or other parts of a departed relative were eaten as a final act of devotion and also to gain back the strength of the dead person.

There are those who suggest that human use of salt as seasoning (as opposed to for preservation) only took off in the Neolithic after the advent of agriculture and our diet became more vegetarian. I don’t find this theory entirely plausible. Before hominins and bipedalism (c. 4 million years ago) our ancestors were primarily vegetarian. Meat eating became more prevalent once bipedalism led to a more actively predatory life-style as hunter gatherers. With more meat, diet now included larger amounts of salt and detection of saltiness was needed less for survival and could be diverted to culinary aesthetics. The control of fire appears around 2 million years ago and coincides roughly with a shift to eating cooked meats and the rapid (in evolutionary terms) increase of hominin brain size. I can well imagine a hominin individual – perhaps even a Neanderthal – designated as the chef for the day and being berated for lack of seasoning with the grilled mammoth steak.

In my story, the use of salt with cooked food as seasoning and to enhance flavour must go back – perhaps a million years – to our hunter-gatherer forbears who had shifted to a meat-rich diet.  It is thus my contention that it is this shift to cooked meat which released our flavour receptors from survival tasks and enabled them to be diverted to culinary aesthetics. Even the use of herbs and spices comes well before the Neolithic agricultural revolution (around 12,000 years ago). Herbs and spices being organic do not survive long and are very rare in the archaeological record. However, pots from about 25,000 years ago containing residues of cumin and coriander have been found. The theory that hunter-gatherers packaged meats for travel in large leaves and added – by trial and error – other plant-based preservatives or flavourings, is not implausible. The medicinal use of herbs and spices must also have been discovered around this time. In any event, even the first use of herbs and spices purely for flavouring must go back at least 50,000 years. Though diet must have included more vegetarian food after the advent of agriculture, the culinary arts of seasoning and flavouring had already been well established before the Neolithic. By the time we come to the ancient civilizations of 7 – 8,000 years ago, more than 100 herbs and spices were known and regularly used.

Whether first for food-wrapping or for medicinal use or for use as preservatives, the use of salt and herbs and spices entirely and specifically to make food taste better marks the beginning of the culinary art. No doubt there were many cases of trial and accident and failures and error. The failed attempts did not make it to the stories of spices though some are now probably included in the history of poisons. There is a case to be made for the culinary profession to be considered the oldest in the world.

image univ of minnesota

Low-salt pseudo science

August 19, 2014

For almost 100 years, some scientists have been warning about the harmful effects of salt in our diets. For the last 40 years or so that has also been the “consensus” view of the medical/regulatory establishment. It was “settled science” we were told. There was complete “consensus” within the medical world it was proclaimed.

Salt was evil.

But apparently the “settled” science was not quite so settled after all. The “consensus” was nothing more than “group think”. In the words of the Wall Street Journal:

Yet the latest USDA food pyramid, which was updated as recently as 2011, clings to simplistic low-salt pseudo-science. The FDA is pressuring food manufacturers and restaurants to remove salt from their recipes and menus, while the public health lobby is still urging the agency to go further and regulate NaCl as if it were a poison.

The larger point is that no scientific enterprise is static, and political claims that some line of inquiry is over and “settled” are usually good indications that real debate and uncertainty are aboil. In medicine in particular, the illusion that science can provide some objective answer that applies to everyone—how much salt to eat, how and how often to screen for cancer, even whom to treat with cholesterol-lowering drugs, and so on—is a special danger.

It is not so easy now to retrace exactly how the salt scare developed and became part of the establishment view. Certainly Lewis Dahl of the Brookhaven National Laboratory was one of the key actors who spread the alarm. He was well placed within US Government circles and soon rather dubious and alarmist conclusions became part of the “establishment view”. Pseudo science became “settled science”:

Scientific American:

In 1904 French doctors reported that six of their subjects who had high blood pressure—a known risk factor for heart disease—were salt fiends. Worries escalated in the 1970s when Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Lewis Dahl claimed that he had  “unequivocal” evidence that salt causes hypertension: he induced high blood pressure in rats by feeding them the human equivalent of 500 grams of sodium a day. (Today the average American consumes 3.4 grams of sodium, or 8.5 grams of salt, a day.)

Dahl also discovered population trends that continue to be cited as strong evidence of a link between salt intake and high blood pressure. People living in countries with a high salt consumption—such as Japan—also tend to have high blood pressure and more strokes. But as a paper pointed out several years later in the American Journal of Hypertension, scientists had little luck finding such associations when they compared sodium intakes within populations, which suggested that genetics or other cultural factors might be the culprit. Nevertheless, in 1977 the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs released a report recommending that Americans cut their salt intake by 50 to 85 percent, based largely on Dahl’s work.

Thereafter “group think” took over. Consensus opinion – and not objective science – ruled. Now we are finding out that there is no clear evidence that salt is harmful and there is some evidence that too little salt is dangerous and can increase the risk of heart disease.

Scientific American:

In April 2010 the Institute of Medicine urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of salt that food manufacturers put into products; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already convinced 16 companies to do so voluntarily. But if the U.S. does conquer salt, what will we gain? Bland french fries, for sure. But a healthy nation? Not necessarily.

This week a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. In May European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine—an excellent measure of prior consumption—the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.

It has taken 40 years for this alarmist meme that salt is harmful to be brought down to earth. Group-think and “consensus science” has its own inertia which makes it difficult to overturn what becomes matters of faith rather than of evidence.

And just a few days ago another establishment paper created headlines when it stated that salt “causes 1.65 million deaths every year across the globe. A published study in New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, found that an average consumed salt (sodium) per day is twice the amount recommended by the World Health Organization. A 3.95 gm consumption per day beyond the recommended amount of 2 gm”. But all they actually did was measure/estimate salt consumption and then multiplied that by an assumed death rate.  By the time the headlines were written a simple measurement of salt consumption became evidence of the dangers of salt! That’s consensus science!

The 1970s and 80s saw many such alarmist memes – based on little and dubious science – become the “consensus view” and the “politically correct” faith to be followed. It was the time when the nonsensical “Limits to Growth” became the bible of the day. It was the time of the DDT scare where the disadvantages were blown out of all proportion and the subsequent ban has been a case of “throwing the baby out with the bath water. Natural variations of the ozone hole were taken to be due to the human use of fluorocarbons. Acid rain was going to kill all the forests.

Whenever I now hear that some science is “settled” or that there is a consensus around some “belief” – as with climate science today – I am inclined to view the claims with a very large bushel of salt.


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