Salt is an intriguing addition to craft chocolate and a critical culinary tool, but it also can be a major problem.
Humans need a (small) amount of salt per day to survive, but ‘in excess’ is also incredibly harmful. Indeed overdosing on salt was an approved suicide mechanic for aristocrats in ancient China. Today this sort of overdosing is pretty rare. Nonetheless according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the published health guidelines of over 100 countries’ health departments, most of us are consuming “30-50% too much salt”, and over the long term, this “dramatically shortens our life expectancy” (source: WHO).
Read on to take some easy steps to avoid excess salt, and appreciate why a pinch of salt is still great for craft chocolate.
Why do we add salt to chocolate?
One of our most popular bars in our virtual tastings was Menakao’s ‘Salt and Nibs’ bar up until Brexit caused various supply challenges. But fear not, it’s now back in stock and will feature in our upcoming Flavour Deep Dive Tasting from October, and it is safe to eat – see below). And it’s a great example how a pinch of salt can pull out even more redberry and citric fruitiness from Madagascan chocolate that bursts with these aromas and flavours.
And many dark, milk and even white chocolate bars will contain a (small) pinch of salt. And this is smart for a bunch of reasons:
- Salt awakens our taste receptors for sweetness, so canny makers can make do with far less sugar than you’d expect. With salt you need less sugar to make something taste sweet. Technically what happens is that a glucose sensor in our intestine known as SGLT1 is activated by salt, and this heightens our ability to detect sweetness in our tongue and gut.
- Salt also adds texture and crunch; many of us enjoy the ‘tang’ of salt (in small doses).
- The combination of sugar, salt and fat creates what is now called the bliss point.
Why do we add salt to other foods and drinks?
Salt has a bunch of other qualities that make it a great ‘go to’ for food and drink companies. Some of these applications are fine. Others are more dubious.
- Salt is a fantastic preservative. Salt dries out meats, fish, etc. and by doing so prevents bacteria from spoiling the food. Humans have known this for at least 8,000 years.
- Salt inhibits the sensation of bitterness: Try adding salt, for example, to some grapefruit and it’s extraordinary to see how this works. Indeed even ultra processed, mass produced 100% dark chocolate bars can be made a bit more palatable by a dose of salt.
- Salt also prevents us realising that a food is otherwise bland and flavourless; Professor Graham MacGregor of the UK’s Action Against Salt is illuminating on (ab)uses here.
- Salt also acts as a great binding and bulking agent. Adding salt to meat, chicken, etc. enables unscrupulous manufacturers to inject more water into, for example, a chicken breast, so effectively you can pay 15-25% as a maker can ‘bulk up’ of these foods.
- Salt also makes us very thirsty, so if you want people to drink lots and lots, adding salt is a canny play to sell more soda, soft drinks, etc.
What’s the problem with excess salt?
Humans definitely need salt. But we need remarkably little; less than 0.5g per day is enough for various remote tribes in South America and South East Asia. And indeed the Yanomamo tribe in Brazil regularly run more than 20 kilometres per day on these levels of salts — and are far healthier (again see the blog for more details here and two great podcasts).
By contrast, in the UK the average citizen consumes over 10 grams of salt per day, over 30% more than government guidelines. And we aren’t alone here; of 189 countries surveyed by the World Health Organisation in 2015, 181 were above the WHO daily average recommended daily intake of 5 grams per day (note: exactly how much is “too much” is the subject of lengthy debates, but it’s generally recommended that adults shouldn’t consume more than 5 grams (WHO) or 6 grams (UK NHS) per day).
Numerous studies have shown that this excessive salt creates multiple health challenges. Without wishing to panic you, here are couple of warnings (along with explanations, and please note that “sodium” is the American term for we in the UK call salt):
- In most people, the kidneys have trouble keeping up with excess sodium [salt] in the blood. As sodium accumulates, the body holds onto water… This increases… the volume of blood in the bloodstream [which leads to]… more work for the heart and more pressure on blood vessels. Over time, the extra work and pressure can stiffen blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. It can also lead to heart failure. There is some evidence that too much salt can damage the heart, aorta, and kidneys… and that it may be bad for bones, too (Harvard School of Public Health).
- Too much salt consumption kills more than a million people each year, with death rates the highest in low and middle income countries… too much salt intake now accounts for one of every ten deaths from cardiovascular causes (New England Journal of Medicine).
- …regularly eating too much salt puts us at increased risk of developing high blood pressure. High blood pressure is the main cause of strokes and a major cause of heart attacks and heart failures, the most common causes of death and illness in the world (WHO – Action against Salt).
Historically a major issue with many studies on salt was the difficulty of measuring salt levels and obtaining consistent results. Unlike many other nutritional research fields where a couple of measurements a day will suffice, salt levels fluctuate MASSIVELY hour by hour; so the experiments and controls for studies on salt require far more measurements and are really hard to do. And then salt’s deleterious impacts can take decades to appear; even longer than tobacco, and way longer than sugar. As a result, various early salt research using daily, not hourly, measurements created some contradictory and confusing results (the so called J Curve, which somehow suggest it’s OK, and maybe even good, to have salt at some low and then high levels, but not consume ‘average’ levels of salt).
How are we consuming so much salt?
10 grams of salt is a LOT. To put this in context, you’d need to consume over 70 full bars of the Menakao Cocoa Nibs & Sea Salt in a day to get near to your recommended UK 6 grams per day (and over 100 bars for the 10g most of us are consuming).
The culprit of our excessive salt consumption is (again) ultra processed food. To quote one recent Australian study, “Around 75 per cent of the salt in our diet comes from [ultra] processed foods, which means we may be unaware of the amount of salt we are having”.
As the Australian study notes, where the salt is in these ultra processed foods isn’t always obvious. For example, many ultra processed breads contain more salt than a bag of crisps. As the UK’s Action Against Salt warned in 2014 and 2018: “In the UK, bread is the single biggest contributor of salt to people’s diets, providing nearly a fifth of salt intake from ultra processed foods”. So just by checking the amount of salt in your daily bread can make all the difference.
And because salt is so good at “tickling our taste buds”, many ultra processed confectionery bars and drinks contain an awful lot of salt, for example:
- Ultra Processed chocolate confectionery including snacks such as a Crunchie bar contain over 0.72 grams of salt per bar.
- Instant hot chocolate drinks by the likes of Cadbury and Galaxy can contain over 1 gram of salt per serving; more than in a glass of sea water!
- A Pret chocolate croissant contains 4.7 grams of salt per croissant (and a plain croissant still has 0.9 grams).
Savouring a craft chocolate bar doesn’t expose you to the risk of excessive salt. Even those like Zotter’s ‘Butter Caramel’ or Menakao’s milk chocolate bars (which are BRILLIANT examples of the bliss point combination of sugar, salt and fat) have way less salt in them than a commercial slice of mass processed bread, high street croissant and most chocolate confectionery snacks.
If you cook at home (as opposed to reheating food like substances), adding salt to flavour and season is also safe, especially when cooking with craft chocolate.
At the same time, checking out the amount of salt on any product’s ingredients is a useful ‘red light’ warning for processed foods. If there is more than 0.7g per 100g it likely means it’s an ultra processed food like substance. Note: sadly this doesn’t hold in reverse. Back in the bad old days, many supermarket mass produced, “plain” dark chocolates did have salt added to them to obscure their lack of flavour. But since Action On Salt‘s “naming and shaming”, these activities have been curtailed (although these bars are still ultra processed; nib rather than bean roasted and other additives are still included).
And one other bit of good news: Once you start to reduce your consumption of ultra processed food like substances that are full of salt, your taste buds will rapidly adjust to appreciate, and indeed demand, less salt. You’ll just need a pinch of salt (and/or sugar) to bring out the flavours of your ingredients and foods.
So please enjoy some craft chocolate bars that all show the wonders of a pinch of salt.