A question of salt

The other day – around lunchtime – I got in the car to drive to the riverside for a walk. On the way, I stopped at a German deli. I was craving one of my favourite food combinations: a pretzel, filled with frankfurters and mustard. I collected my takeaway German ‘sandwich’ (made with a pretzel ‘stick’ – like a pretzel roll) and drove to the river. I was enjoying my pretzel moment when it occurred to me that my lunch was actually quite salty.

Can a pretzel have too much salt? It would be a shame, because the whole point of a pretzel is the salt. Soft German pretzels are wondrous things: skilfully kneaded dough twisted into a ‘crossed-arm’ knot, baked to polished deep-amber perfection, and unashamedly scattered with white kernels of salt. Pretzel aficionados may praise the quality and taste of the artisan dough, or delight in the chewiness of the bite, or comment on the shiny brown crust, but in fact, most pretzel lovers are after one thing: pretzel salt!

However, it is also true to say that cravings for salt on pretzels may come with a few side effects. I can vouch for some of them: dehydration, dry mouth, swollen tongue, tingling lips and a desperate urge to drink a large cold glass of Weiss bier.

So, are pretzels unhealthy? A diet high in salt can lead to high blood pressure, hypertension and other health issues. We are advised by the UK Scientific Committee on Nutrition (2003) that a safe amount of salt is about 4g per day. According to one German Baker, there is 1.03g of salt on an 80g salted pretzel. This is good news, since – assuming no other salt was consumed – we would need to eat four pretzels in one day to tip the scales on our recommended daily intake – and even I, with my well-established penchant for a pretzel would struggle to manage that.

The trouble is: we like salt. We need salt (albeit in small quantities). Salt is one of our key tastes; it not only makes food taste better, it also cures and preserves food. Since ancient times, salt has been a key part of our diet and our relationship with food.

As cooks, we instinctively salt our food; we cook pasta in salted water, we sprinkle salt over boiled eggs and steak, we salt tomatoes and avocados and might even salt our fruit. Chefs are celebrated for their ‘seasoning’ which is just a fancy way of saying they are adding salt to their food. Large food manufacturers understand the importance of salt, especially in the production of snacks – they know more salt equals more sales.

So, it turns out we are all a little addicted to salt. Indeed, research shows that we are consuming more than our safe levels, which is why as nations, we are advised to reduce our salt consumption by 30% (The World Health Organisation, 2012).

Therefore, we might conclude that, whilst it is sensible to lower our overall salt intake, we still have about 4g to play with! On the matter of salt intake vs consumption of pretzels we do not need to abstain, but we could think about moderating our cravings. For instance, we might aim for one or two pretzel-free days of the week. We might pick off a few of those delectable beads of salt (well, a couple at least). Alternatively, we could run to the deli, eat a pretzel and then run back and sweat some of the salt out of our system – and who knows, the salt may well help us to avoid cramp. Finally, if we suddenly find ourselves driving past a German deli, do stop and enjoy a pretzel – just don’t have too many…