Salt intake, and why taste is like a dog whistle


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I was reading a profile of British historian Lucy Worsley in the New Yorker last night, in which the writer (Lauren Collins) takes part in the authentic re-enactment of the meal eaten by King George on February 6, 1789:


Soupe barley

4 chickens roasted

3 pullets minced and broiled

7 3/4 mutton collop pyes

6 perch boiled

2 breasts of lamb a la pluck

2 salmic of ducks

13 loin veal smort

(And a partridge in a pear tree, presumably.) The article is both fascinating and funny, but the culinary payoff after an enormous amount of work ends up being a bit anticlimactic:

If every age has its sounds and smells, it also has its flavors. The taste of 1789 can be a dog whistle to modern palates… “You’ve had your tongue burnt off by a Mexican chili, and you’ve been eating sugar cookies since you’ve been able to stand [says Marc Meltonville, co-head of the Historic Kitchens team;] if something’s subtle, sweetened with rose petals, how are you going to be able to taste it?”

This made me think of the long-running and bitter debate about the “right” amount of salt consumption, and how tastes are formed. Just this morning, the New York Times reported on a neat new study suggesting that the amount of salt you’re fed as an infant determines your taste for it in later life. But taste for salt is also somewhat plastic. When my wife and I started eating together, her taste for salt was dramatically higher than mine. Now, a few years later, our tastes have sort of met in the middle. She no longer adds as much salt to food as she used to; but when I visit my parents, I find that I now need to add salt to dishes that I loved for many years with no added salt.

And I still struggle to reconcile all this with the widespread message that we’re eating wayyy more salt now than we used to (and thus salt is responsible for the current epidemic of hypertension). As I wrote last year about a study by Harvard’s Walter Willett:

He and a colleague reviewed studies between 1957 and 2003 that measured sodium excretion in urine — a very accurate way of determining salt intake that gets around the difficulties in figuring out exactly how much salt is in your food. They found two main things: (a) sodium intake averaged about 3,700 mg per person per day, which is way higher than the upper recommended limit of 2,300; and (b) it essentially hasn’t changed in the half-century studied.

Interestingly, these results agree almost exactly with similar reviews of studies from 33 different countries: salt intake is high, and it hasn’t changed in recent memory.

And Henry VIII, according to Worsley in the New Yorker piece, ate 20 grams of salt each day!

4 Replies to “Salt intake, and why taste is like a dog whistle”

  1. Alex,

    There are several anecdotal reports over at Stephan Guyenet’s blog (including my own) to the effect that a decrease in food reward intake (such as salt or sugar) leads to a decreased taste for the same in pretty short order. My own experience is that certain foods that I used to enjoy but have since forsworn now taste way too sweet and salty to enjoy. I am sure there is a limit to the plasticity of taste but in my experience it can change at least a little.

  2. Thanks for pointing out this article. I’ve seen a number of Lucy Worsley’s history shows that have aired in Britain, and really enjoyed them.

    The hot chilis in particular are interesting, I think. Very hot and spicy food is another thing that really came into vogue in the early 80s – the same time Americans started to get fat. There are so many things that changed at that time, and this is just another one.

    I am fascinated by the whole food reward theory. It’s one that a lot of people *really* don’t seem to want to hear, considering the reception it’s gotten from some of Guyenet’s readers.

  3. So… did Henry VII eat more salt (“20 grams”) or less salt (is the “20 grams” a typo?) than we moderns (“3700 mg per person per day”)?

    Isn’t a milligram one-thousandth of a gram?

  4. Yeah, that was confusing to me too. It’s not a typo — I think it just reflects the fact that Henry VIII had a crazy diet, whereas the average person at that time probably ate much less seasoning.

    (On the other hand, salt was important for meat preservation prior to refrigeration, so perhaps people did eat a lot more salt in the olden days. I’m still not entirely sure what the actual historical trend in salt consumption has been.)

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