It’s a basic fact of food processing: the more highly processed the food, the more stuff you have to add to it to make it taste good – salts, sugars, flavorings and other additives. And of course the manufacturers want it to taste as good as possible so we’ll buy and eat more of their products. They also want to do this as cheaply as possible, since they’re not in business out of any Samaritan impulse but to make money, and limiting costs can go a long way toward pumping up profits, at least in the short term.
High fructose corn syrup and salt are two additives that have been overused by food companies precisely because they’re cheap while helping heighten flavors, preserve products and otherwise “enhance” the product. Notably, these are also ingredients that health-conscious people would like to see less of, if such foods are eaten at all. But while HFCS can be easily replaced with other sugars and sugar substitutes, manufacturers currently claim that lowering salt content would ruin the food.
How salt affects certain food products was made strikingly clear in a recent NY Timesarticle :
As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.
“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.
They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.
While Kellogg and other companies may say this is why salt is needed, we think it says a lot more about the low quality of the food – that it could taste so bad simply by getting rid of much of the salt…something unlikely to happen when, say, you reduce the amount of salt in a meal made at home. It might taste a little bland, but it sure wouldn’t taste like medicine, metal or straw.
Which leads us to the other fascinating passage in the Times article: what food manufacturers would have to do to compensate for lower sodium content. The remedy? Higher quality ingredients.
Companies that make low-salt pasta sauces improve the taste with vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh herbs that cost more than dried spices and lower grade tomatoes.
Of course, the companies complain that this would hurt sales. (Sales or profits?) And maybe it would. But you know what would hurt sales even more? Pursuing even better nutrition by cutting out as many processed foods as possible, following a diet based on whole foods and, where processed foods are needed (things like bread, cheese and other foods not easily made at home from scratch), choosing the least processed versions possible.