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Why Does Salt Taste Good?

To call salt a popular seasoning is an understatement. For some people, it’s practically an ingredient. Americans love salt, and they’re not the only ones. Salt has been an important flavor for humans for centuries. It’s literally the root cause of where we got the word salary, and it’s been an essential part of religious ceremonies and human culture dating back to the Ancient Egyptians. Additionally, salt has been the cause of civil unrest and important in the preservation of food before refrigeration. So, it’s no surprise that salt is a central element for many cuisines around the world.

But how did it get that way? There’s a surprising number of reasons to this, which will have you taking a second look at the saltshaker on your dinner table.

Necessary Nutrients

The most basic reason why anything tastes good is because our bodies tell us that it has important nutrients. In a sense, things tasting good is our brains’ way of rewarding us for getting the nutrients our body needs to survive. The craving for salt is so strong because it has two key nutrients that are relatively hard to find in nature — sodium and chloride. Both sodium and chloride (a form of chlorine) are very reactive elements, which is why they’re so rare. At the same time, the body doesn’t store away extra salt, which makes it important to have a regular intake of it. This creates the need for the craving, pushing us to consume salt when we can since it’s such an important compound.

Salt is important to maintaining healthy hydration and pH balance and can help people with hypotension low blood pressure.

Both the primary elements in salt, sodium and chloride, are electrolytes, which are essential to our bodies. Salt is important to maintaining healthy hydration and pH balance and can help people with hypotension (low blood pressure). It’s also important for keeping our muscles and nervous system functioning properly. On top of all that, you can also develop a condition known as hyponatremia when there is too little sodium in your blood. That said, it’s important to remember that you can overdo the amount of salt you get, so be careful.

Enhances Other Flavors

Salt has an additional flavor strength beyond triggering the nutrient-reward parts of our brains that further explains why we love it so much. Not only does salt taste good on its own, it works with other tastes, too! Studies show that salt can enhance generally positive flavors like sweet and umami while also suppressing what we traditionally consider bad flavors, like bitter tastes. This makes salt an excellent ingredient to combine with other flavors in dishes and gives reason as to why salt has become a standard in so many dishes. For example, it’s the secret to making eggplant taste great. It takes sweet dishes and ratchets them up to another level, and for meat and savory dishes, salting is an essential step to really making the perfect dish.

The suppression of bitter flavors may allow the others to come more to the forefront.

It is important to note that adding salt isn’t a simple addition equation. More salt doesn’t mean more good flavor. In fact, it’s more complicated than that. In small doses, salt enhances the flavor of sweets, but beyond that, it’s less effective. On the other hand, in more moderate amounts, umami dishes are similarly enhanced and can take more salting than sweet dishes. This may be because of the suppression of bitter flavors, allowing the others to come more to the forefront. In other tests, salt also increased the perception of thickness, balance, and fullness of soup. What’s interesting is that of the five basic flavors (sweet, umami, salty, sour, and bitter), there are two that are inherently bad tasting (sour and bitter), and salt can enhance or depress both to make them taste better for humans.

Expectation

Another reason why we may consider salt to be so delicious is due to culture and being raised to enjoy saltiness. Yes, salt’s deliciousness falls on both sides of the nature vs. nurture debate. It’s pretty well established that humans all around the world enjoy salt. In fact, one massive study shows that people around the world have about the same amount of salt intake, barring a few notable exceptions. But, over time, we also get used to higher amounts of sodium which will make foods not taste as salty as they actually are. One study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who change to a low-sodium diet for a few months and then return to their old diet felt their old diet included way too much salt.

We not only enjoy salt, we associate the saltiness with some of our favorite and most commonly eaten dishes.

What this shows is that while some level of enjoyment of salt is inborn in humans, the levels can vary based on your current intake. We, in turn, grow to like salt since many of our favorite comfort foods are loaded with salt. So, we not only enjoy salt, we associate the saltiness with some of our favorite and most commonly eaten dishes. This creates a circular trend that reinforces the tastiness of salt.

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So, what does this all mean for you? For one, it’s okay to enjoy salt. Not only is the love of salt both a part of your physiology and a part of your diet, it’s also necessary for your health. You don’t have to feel bad for enjoying salt, as long as you’re going about it responsibly. Unless your doctor suggests it, you probably don’t need to adopt a specifically low-sodium diet. We also know more about how to appropriately use salt in our dishes to enhance the flavors, but not to act as a crutch, since too much salt can ruin the flavors. Ultimately, by understanding this key seasoning and flavor, we can enjoy it and use it to enhance our dishes without ruining our health.

Further Reading

Medicareful Living — Why Does Food Taste Good