Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
If you reduce the sodium content of cookies you bake (or talk someone into baking for you), they won’t explode. I have data! We’ll get back to this.
While there is debate- some of it legitimate, some of it otherwise- about all of the details of healthful eating, the basic pattern of eating well is very well established, and convincingly evidence-based. And the health benefits attached to such a pattern are profound.
That pattern- foods close to nature, minimally processed, mostly plants- is inextricably associated with less sugar intake, less sodium intake, and lower calorie intake. Getting there from here would be a good thing, but it’s clearly something most Americans can’t figure out how to do. The fact that it’s so hard is not by accident- the food industry has done all it can to keep you lost in the dark woods of a profitable status quo.
Part of what the industry has done is to propagate an arms race- with your taste buds. Human taste buds are predisposed to like sweet- so putting sugar in food is apt to make people like it. Now imagine, though, that your competitor’s product is outselling yours because it has just a bit more sugar- what are you to do? Increase your own sugar content, of course.
See where this can lead? As manufacturers compete in this area, taste buds start acclimating to more, and more, and more sugar. The more they get, they more they want. And so we wind up with ever more sugar in our food partly because…we’re asking for it! We’re asking for it because our taste buds are desensitized to sugar, and need ever more to register satisfaction.
This same scenario applies to salt- and other properties of foods, too, such as creaminess. The more we get, the more we tend to want. The more we want, the more we get.
If your taste buds have acclimated to high levels of sugar and salt, you will simply prefer more highly processed foods, and reject the simple, unadulterated flavors of simple foods close to nature. And so you, and perhaps your family, will miss out on the enormous health benefits associated with healthful eating, which is a terrible shame- because healthy people have more fun.
But this is all fixable. Taste buds can be rehabilitated. They are, in fact, very malleable little fellas: when they can’t be with a food they love, they can quite readily learn to love the food they’re with. Particularly if the food they’re now with is familiar overall, but just a bit better for you. I maintain: we can love foods that love us back.
The food industry arms race make and sell products we can’t resist has resulted in some very odd formulations. Breakfast cereals routinely are more concentrated sources of added salt than items in the salty snack aisle. Pasta sauces and salad dressings are frequently more concentrated sources of added sugar than desserts.
Every recipe for home-baked cookies includes added salt. Have you ever thought to ask- why do cookies need salt? Do I LIKE salty cookies?
My wife and I did ask, some years ago while working on one of our books. We made the obvious inference: if you don’t put salt in home-baked cookies, they presumably explode. But we are both scientists- my wife has a PhD in neuroscience- so we decided to test our hypothesis.
We took the salt in cookie recipes down, and out- and the cookies did not explode. The shelf life didn’t seem to change much either, although admittedly, cookies don’t tend to sit around too long! But no obvious liabilities with texture, survival time, or tendency to detonate were discerned.
We really noticed only one thing: suddenly, the cookies were too sweet. We had not altered the sugar content at all- but now they were too sweet. The reason is that salt can mask the taste of sugar, and vice versa. Less salt competing for taste buds’ attention meant the sugar was more discernible.
So we took down the sugar content, too. And with the sodium reduced, we found the cookies tasted plenty sweet enough with half the sugar they had at the start. We’ve been eating variations on the theme of these cookies ever since- and have shared them widely. Much less sodium, much less sugar, and still delicious.
The non-exploding cookie epiphany can be generalized. Cut down on stealth sugar and salt by trading up your food choices, and you can make your taste buds more sensitive – so that you actually prefer less.
Getting rid of stealth additions of sugar and salt to innumerable foods, and rehabilitating your taste buds, is an important strategy for getting to the luminous health benefits beyond. Our homegrown data suggest it can readily be done, we can love food that loves us back, and there will be very few injuries related to exploding cookies along the way.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com