A Pediatrician Confesses To Her Salty Guilty Pleasure

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hide captionThough pediatrician Anjali Jain has cautioned her patients endlessly about their nutrition, she never mentions salt. Though she knows sodium overloads aren't good for anyone, she can't chide others for indulging in her favorite seasoning.

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salt

Though pediatrician Anjali Jain has cautioned her patients endlessly about their nutrition, she never mentions salt. Though she knows sodium overloads aren't good for anyone, she can't chide others for indulging in her favorite seasoning.

iStockphoto.com

Anjali Jain is a pediatrician in Washington, D.C., and a senior researcher with the Lewin Group.

My mother told me an old Indian folk tale that goes something like this: A loving king gathers his daughters around him, showering them with gifts and affection. Each daughter, in turn, expresses her love for her father, comparing it to things of great value.

"I love you more than all the gold in the land," says one, to her father's great delight.

Another exclaims, "I love you more than the stars in the heaven."

Finally the last daughter declares, "Father, I love you more than salt." As this youngest daughter was secretly his favorite, the king is hurt and becomes enraged. He shuns her from him and sends her away.

Years later, he is traveling near her home and stops for a night of rest. The daughter, grown, her face partially covered by her sari, is not recognized by her father. She brings him a simple but delicious meal — without salt. When he asks for salt, she reveals herself and proves the meaning of her true feelings. The king sees the error of his hasty judgment and the two are happily reconciled.

I tell this story partially as a way of confessing that I, like too many Americans, love salt. It is an especially important part of Indian food — we readily salt foods that no one else does, like watermelon, toast, pomegranates, and orange juice. There is even another salt we use as flavoring, kala namak — translated as "black salt" — a pinkish form of rock salt mined in India. It contains impurities of sodium sulfate and hydrogen sulfide that give it a pungent and sulfurous smell. I love it, though — it tastes even saltier than salt.

It is because of my own preferences that, in my pediatric practice, I have been silent about salt. Although I find myself talking endlessly to my pediatric patients about nutrition and obesity, I never mention salt. I did look for evidence once that salt was bad for kids, and didn't find any — but perhaps I didn't look hard enough. I've also watched enough studies go back and forth about certain foods that it seemed reasonable to wait for The Definitive Answer.

Perhaps now we have it — we get way too much salt and it is, indeed, bad for you. But more than three-quarters of the salt and all of the excess sodium in the American diet is from processed foods, the kinds of foods I do already caution against for my patients and my own children. This is the salt we don't really taste and that is used for its properties as a preservative and stabilizer of foods. It is this hidden salt in processed foods that the FDA plans to decrease slowly, perhaps even imperceptibly.

For me — and much to my pleasant surprise — I think this means it is OK, after all, to love salt from the shaker — the few sprinkles that quietly unveil the sweetness or mellow the sourness of foods, a pinch to open the tiny pores of our taste buds and let the flavors in. The way salt was loved in those old stories, and ever since.

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