It would be hard to miss the newsflash the other day that Kirin Holdings and Meiji University have done it once again. In another new technological breakthrough, they have produced some slightly shocking results. The same Japanese partnership that brought us Taste the TV – the first “lick-able” TV screen to accurately mimic food flavours in real time – have come up with something even better. They have created a ‘chopstick device’ that can boost the taste of salt in foods while you eat them. The chopsticks are essentially connected by a wire to a mini-computer that is worn on a wristband and creates electrical stimulation waveform that works its magic to make lower-sodium foods taste saltier when eaten. In fact, the device is able to supercharge the perceived saltiness of foods by 1.5 times without changing the actual salt content of each bite.
Although the thought of voluntarily putting a pair of electrically charged chopsticks attached to a lead into your mouth might sound like a badly thought out dare, the charge is said to be too weak to affect the human body. Yet it is just strong enough to affect the perception of taste. Which means that it could be a useful tool to help people eat a diet that is lower in salt and healthier without missing any salty flavour. This joint project is part of an overall aim of Kirin Holdings to support lifestyle disease prevention and addressing the very high salt consumption rates in Japan is a good place to start. Because the evidence is crystal clear. High salt consumption is a real killer.
Primarily, eating too much salt puts you at a greater risk of developing high blood pressure which in turn is the main cause of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure. And to add to this dire list, high salt consumption also increases your risk of developing chronic kidney disease, stomach cancer and osteoporosis. The World Health Organization recommends that adults should consume <5.0g salt/day but government figures in Japan show that women consume 9.3g salt/day and men consume a whopping 10.9g/day, more than twice the WHO limit. Consequently, the technology behind these new chopsticks may provide another front on which to address this public health problem. Future research by the team could lead to the development of more salt enhancing utensils such as spoons and tea bowls to help those trying to maintain a low-sodium diet and to target those who clearly aren’t aware of the dangers.
But of course, poor health due to high salt consumption is not just restricted to countries where soy sauce, miso and nori are daily staples. It is a major cause of illness and death worldwide. In England, the most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey in 2020 showed that the average daily salt intake for men tipped the scales at 9.2g/day while women consumed 7.6g/day. Although the UK government guidelines allow for a slightly more generous maximum of 6g/day for adults, we clearly need to do more to reduce our consumption. But how many people are even mindful of how much salt they eat every day? You may be aware of the times when you reach for a saltshaker and rain it down heavily onto your chips but what about the salt in your food that’s already there? So much of the salt we eat is hidden from plain sight and added in the manufacturing process and preparation of foods and drinks. So while we wait for our electrically charged forks and spoons to arrive I thought I would share some top tips to help reduce your salty habit.
Don’t go cold turkey
It can take a little time to get used to a new way of cooking and eating less salt but it is easier to adjust your appetite if you make gradual changes over time. Start with removing the shaker at the table and reducing the salt in your cooking. Stop automatically adding it to your cooking water as an afterthought or sprinkling it on uncooked food as routine. As you cut down on salt you may find that your food tastes a bit plain at first but try to resist the urge to sprinkle or reach for salty sauces. Instead add more fresh and dried herbs and spices. You will very soon become accustomed to eating less salt in your food and begin to taste an even wider range of flavours on your plate. Trust me, you do not know what you are missing.
Cook more at home
Probably no surprise here but much of the food that is served outside our homes in restaurants and takeaways is very high in salt. But even at home, your diet is still likely to be too high in salt if you consume readymade and ultra–processed foods and drinks. Which means that the more that you can prepare your meals using fresh and unprocessed ingredients, the lower in salt it will be and the better it is for your health. Although this is not to say that cooking always has to be a chore and everything must be prepared from scratch. There are plenty of perfectly healthy pre-cooked and minimally processed ingredients that will help to save time cooking such as passata, tinned chickpeas and grains. But when you are using tinned, jarred or frozen fruits, vegetables and pulses choose ones that contain no added salt. Don’t forget that supermarket own brands often contain less salt than branded versions and may also be far cheaper.
Lose the shaker, not flavour
Don’t reach for the saltshaker or highly salted sauces, stock cubes and dressings to flavour your food when cooking and serving. Instead add plenty of flavour by using fresh and dried spices and herbs. For instant, chopped garlic, ginger and chilli can add some tasty warmth. While the zest and a squeeze of a lemon, lime or orange will liven up a dish in a flash. Lastly, lose the saltshaker on your table for good but swap it for a larger pepper grinder to help to keep a salty habit out of sight.
Remember that salt is hiding in plain sight
When you are shopping, there’s no reason to be in the dark about how much salt is in your foods and drinks because you can find out by simply reading the label of what you buy. Always look at how much salt is in your food per 100g rather than the serving size to get a more accurate measure.
As a guide,
LOW in salt means < 0.3g of salt per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
HIGH in salt means >1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
As a general rule, the more heavily processed a product is, the higher it is in salt. It doesn’t matter if it also happens to be organic, free trade, plant-based or gluten-free. Always trust the label not the saltiness of how it tastes. Some foods that are high in salt don’t taste especially salty because they also contain large amounts of sugar. Some contenders for the saltiest food stuff on our supermarket’s shelves include cured and processed meats and cheeses, white bread, breakfast cereals, instant hot chocolate, condiments and sauces, and sweet and savoury snack foods. Read the label and choose low or no-salt versions of foods and drinks where you can and try to cut down more on the ones that you cannot.
Don’t believe the hype
Everyone knows a salt lover who shakes it liberally on everything they eat almost as a superstition. They will tell you eating salt is actually good for you and that our bodies need salt to function. It is true that we all need a little salt to survive but we already get far more than we need from our food without trying. Furthermore, our bodies are not the least bit picky when it comes to types of salt. Whether it’s organic rock salt, Himalayan pink salt or natural sea salt flakes it really doesn’t matter. It makes no difference if you source your salt from the sachets of your local chippy or it comes from locally harvested hand-picked seaweed and it also contains other minerals. Our bodies are very much old school and treats all salt the same. Regularly consuming more than the daily recommended guideline of any kind of salt is simply bad for your health and over time can lead to illness, disease and death.
Lastly, although the advancement of technological gadgets such as the ‘chopstick device’ has the potential to make a positive impact on public health if we really want to reduce salt consumption as a nation we must do much more to deal with the source of the problem. We already have statutory regulations coming into force in October that clamp down on the promotion and placement of foods high in fat, salt or sugar. But it would be even more effective to put regulatory pressure on manufacturers and producers of foods and drinks to restrict the salt content of their products because continuing to employ voluntary salt reduction targets means they can be safely ignored. After all, we have a wealth of evidence to show the extent of harm, ill health and death that is caused from high salt consumption in the UK not to mention the cost to the NHS. If it took the implementation of the statutory soft drinks levy aka the ‘sugar tax’ to finally convince manufacturers to reformulate and reduce the amount of sugar in their drinks, why should reducing salt be any different?
While we wait in anticipation to hear about the next food-related technological breakthrough hopefully my top tips will help you think twice before reaching for the saltshaker. In the meantime, time for some easy Speedy salad dressings and vinaigrettes to add a lot of flavour to your dishes without the salt. Take your pick of a new favourite: Pumpkin dressing, Avocado and herb dressing and Orange Balsamic vinaigrette.