by Les Saidel - August, 2014
For a growing number of people it is becoming necessary to adopt a low-salt or salt-free diet.
Common table-salt, or by its chemical name sodium chloride, is ubiquitous in food and has been since the dawn of time. It is the universal spice, without which foods taste bland and tasteless. The human species has placed such an emphasis on their food having taste that throughout the ages, wars have been fought and won over salt, literally.
Aside from exciting our palates, salt contains a mineral essential to the normal functioning of our bodies, specifically the sodium part of sodium chloride. Sodium plays an essential role in myriad systems of the human physiology, among them facilitating osmotic transfer of nutrients and waste products in and out of the cells, creating the electrical impulses traveling along nerves to and from the brain and many more. Severe sodium deficiency can result in respiratory arrest and death.
Sodium is continuously being lost from our bodies as a constituent of perspiration. The body cannot synthesize sodium and it must therefore be ingested regularly as part of our diet. The needs for sodium vary with the individual and the geographical region. People who live in hotter climates (and perspire more) require a larger sodium intake than those who live in cooler climates, for example.
An excess of sodium in the diet can lead to hypertension, or high blood pressure, to which certain individuals are more genetically prone than others. This brings us to the opening statement of the article - people suffering from high blood pressure are usually placed on low-salt or salt-free diets by their doctors or dieticians to re-establish the electrolyte balance in their bodies.
In today's modern society and food culture, it is very difficult to become sodium deficient. Processed food unfortunately loses a lot of its intrinsic flavour during processing and to compensate for that the food companies add extra salt or flavour enhancers like mono-sodium-glutamate (MSG) to restore taste to the food. (For those cooking at home using fresh produce, this is less of problem because the fresh food has its own intrinsic flavour and needs to be spiced less). We therefore find ourselves inundated with a glut of salt in our food which is potentially dangerous for that population who are genetically prone to hypertension.
Obviously bread forms an important part of the diet and those on low-salt or salt-free diets must purchase or bake bread using less or no salt.
It must be stated right up front that bread without salt is usually bland and tasteless. If you have ever forgotten to add salt to your dough, you will have experienced this. The taste of salt-free bread is very similar to drinking distilled water, not an overly pleasant experience.
There is one place on our small planet that does make salt free bread out of CHOICE! This is in Tuscany, Italy.
The true reason for this tradition is uncertain, but two theories have been proposed. The first claims that at a certain point in history, the tax on salt became so exorbitant that the Tuscans simply stopped using it in their cooking and baking.
The second version is a little more dramatic and finds its origins in the war between the cities of Florence and Pisa. The Pisans laid siege to Florence and blocked entry of supplies, including salt. The citizens of Florence had no choice but to forego this spice and thus began to cook and bake without it.
Whichever theory you believe, the fact remains that the Tuscans became so used to salt-free bread that it has remained a tradition in the region to this day. I must add however, that Tuscan food (aside from their bread) is known to be spicy, so perhaps the lack of salt in the bread is balanced by the food. In fact Tuscan bread is routinely eaten together with some condiment or together with other food for this reason.
If you want to embark on a low-salt salt-free diet, here are a few tips and recommendations, some general and other more bread specific.
Firstly and most importantly such a diet should not be undertaken without first consulting with and obtaining the approval of a doctor or dietician.
The brain adapts. So while at first you may find food without salt insipid, after time you will become used to it, so much so that if you return to a normal diet, you will then find the food over-salted.
Act according to directions of your medical practitioner, but if possible, reduce the salt gradually, giving your brain time to adapt. This will be less emotionally stressful to your system.
Avoid processed foods as much as possible and cook and bake your own, using the freshest produce available. These have the highest intrinsic flavour and will compensate for the lack of salt. For some this is a revelation - to actually "discover" the true taste of the food.
Compensate for lack of salt by increased use of other spices in the food which do not affect the malady.
As far as baking bread is concerned, use of freshly ground whole grain flour adds to the intrinsic flavour of the bread. Similarly, using sourdough to ferment the bread rather than regular baker's yeast, will greatly enhance the flavour. Finally the addition of other spices, such as garlic, coriander etc. to the bread will add to the taste.
Finally there are alternative salts on the market that contain no sodium, such as potassium chloride. However usage of these must be done under medical supervision so as not to disturb other balances in the body.
In summary, act according to your medical practitioner's guidelines, and make the process as painless as possible by enhancing the intrinsic flavour of the food.
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