Our Craving For Salt Is Actually An Important Evolutionary Mechanism

By Medically reviewed by Panel Perubatan Hello Doktor

Salt has been an important element in our food for centuries – from preserving food, to making some food become more palatable or taste better. Without it, French fries become bland, potato chips become boring and chocolate chips loses its pop. More importantly for us, Malaysians, how do you make sumptuous local dishes like rendang, sambal for nasi lemak and nut gravy (kuah kacang) for satay without salt?

Salt-rich food can be very very seductive and that is why it is very hard to resist a lot of fast food’s menu be it fried chicken, burgers, or even pizza. Whether we want to admit it or not, food does taste better when you add a little bit of salt into it, leading to innovations such as salted-caramel smoothies, salted fish skin and salted-egg everything. So why, why in the sweet name of everything that is holy, do we like salt in our food so much? What is it about them that makes dishes taste better?

Before we go on any further, let’s just be clear that what we mean by salt here is Sodium Chloride (NaCl), the most abundant and most common form of salt – hence, craving for salt in this article refers to the craving for NaCl. The reason for that is because almost all of the studies done on salt, either focuses on Sodium Chloride or that the effect of other form of salts doesn’t have the same kick and ability.

The craving for salt may be of an evolutionary importance

Sodium (Na) and Chloride (Cl) can be found in the body in a sizable amount and they are important for the regulation of the pH value of the blood, the compensatory mechanisms of the body (Homeostasis) and for the regulation of fluid. More importantly for sodium, it is involved in a lot of processes, from the regulation of blood pressure, nerve conductions to the very movement of our muscles – it is one of the most important, if not the most important, electrolyte in the body.

“Having too much or not enough of it can cause a lot of disturbance to our body.” 

The above statement is important for us to understand how the craving for salt is a protective evolutionary mechanism – Depending on what century you came to this planet, access to salt was not that easy for our early ancestors as compared to today. In fact, thousands of years ago, salt was very hard to get unless you happen to live near the ocean, and considering how important salt is for the optimal functioning of the human body, our early ancestors needed a ‘push’ to want to get salt into their system. Because of that, the taste perception of our early ancestors had evolved into liking them to avoid us from experiencing salt deprivation, by making salt as a part of our diet. Here are some of the ways on how salt and our biology has worked together to make us want one another:

Salt makes your food smell better – You may have already know this because of how meat were kept before the days of refrigerator. The ions inside the salt are attracted to water content in the food, making it easier for volatile compound (compound that contributes to a food’s aroma) escape into the air, leaving the food. This is another way of making your food taste better which is by making them smell better.

Salt makes your food taste sweeter – That’s right. This is also why those fast food meat taste sweeter. Salt makes your food taste sweeter because it reduces the perception of other conflicting flavours especially bitter flavours, allowing sweetness to go on full-fledge. Scientist don’t have the exact mechanism figured out but they suggest that it is due to the cancelling effect of sodium binding on the taste buds which prevents or reduces the binding of bitter-flavoured chemicals on the taste buds.

Furthermore, the very transport of sugar through the cell relies on sodium-activated channels which means that a pinch of salt can literally give a burst of sweetness when taken together.

Salt alter the perception of flavours – That’s because Salt doesn’t just make your food become salty, it does way more than that especially with regards to flavour perception. The effect it can have at altering our taste perception can be so perplexedly interesting that if you’re trying to swallow a tasteless and unpalatable medication, a pinch of salt would actually do the job better at masking the taste than a spoonful of sugar.

Courtesy of NCBI

Furthermore, another study also found that when given salt and a bitter compound together but in a way that the two does not mingle on your tongue, your brain still perceives the overall taste as less bitter. Some study suggest that the anti-bitterness effect comes from how your brain interprets multiple taste stimuli when there’s a presence of salt. Salt pretty much reprograms how your brain perceive the flavour of everything else.

craving for salt

With that said, it is pretty clear how our intrinsic perception and biology has incorporated salt as something naturally likable. Our craving for salt perhaps saved our early ancestors but in the age where getting a packet of salt can be so darn cheap and easily bought, it is pretty obvious that we are taking too much of it in our diet. Diseases related to too much salt like Hypertension and Obesity has been a worldwide cause of morbidity in non-communicable diseases and instead of being told to naturally give in to our craving for salt, we are now advised to control our salt intake to ensure that we strike a balance between staying optimally healthy and acquiring salt-related conditions.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis and treatment.

msBahasa Malaysia

Sources
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