Salt Intolerance

Do human taste buds and flavor tolerances change as human beings age?  Or are they just putting more salt — much, much more salt — into some foods these days?

I’m guessing it’s a little bit of both.  

I’ve definitely changed my application of salt to food as the years have gone by.  I used to reflexively salt things like cheeseburgers, steaks, eggs, and corn on the cob, but have long since stopped doing that.  These days, I rarely put salt on anything.  I’m a big fan of black pepper, and I like to apply seasonings like paprika and cayenne to give food an extra flavor kick.  But salt has moved to the back of the seasoning cabinet.

But I think it’s also true that many restaurants simply are a lot more liberal with their salting.  I’ve had to edit my list of restaurant foods because some orders are simply too salty to be enjoyed.  I’ve long since stopped getting carryout Chinese, because most places have so much sodium in their General Tso’s chicken that you kind of wonder whether the General was some kind of pathetic salt addict.  And McDonald’s fries are also at the verboten end of the salt spectrum.  Lately some pizzas also seem to be edging toward the forbidden zone.

Sometimes it’s just too tempting to try that piece of pizza, but I always end up deeply regretting it.  I find myself drinking glass after glass of water to make up for the salt intake, and I wake up at night feeling like every ounce of moisture has been sucked out of my body and you could use a straight razor to shave salt crystals off my tongue.  And then I vow that another food item must go onto the roster of banned items.  

This summer the GV Jogger generously got me a great t-shirt that says “Stay Salty.”  It refers to my personality, not my taste buds.

The Salt Monster

In an otherwise forgettable episode of Star Trek, Dr. McCoy meets a woman whom he believes to be a former lover.  Instead, she turns out to be a hideous, shape-changing Salt Monster who kills humans by extracting all of the salt from their bodies through giant suckers on her hands.

Today, I have a sense of what the salt monster must have felt like after a satisfying high-sodium meal.  Yesterday I unwittingly ate something that was high in salt, and I woke up in the middle of the night with a mouth that felt like the salt-studded rim of a margarita glass.  I brushed my teeth again and drank lots of water before going back to bed, and when I woke up this morning my tongue still tasted like it was dipped in seawater.  When I’ve had an unfortunate close encounter with salty foods, the physical effect extends beyond the desiccated mouth region to encompass the rest of my body, which generally feels like crap.  Studies indicate, of course, that too much salt increases your blood pressure, and that high blood pressure in turn can make you a candidate for a heart attack or stroke.

I try to avoid salty foods, but it isn’t easy.  If you go to the grocery store and randomly look at ingredient labels on food items — a government initiative that even free-market types must admit has achieved the important social good of allowing people to know what they are consuming — you will be amazed at the reported levels of sodium.  Virtually every processed food is loaded with salt, either to add flavor or enhance preservation or both.

The American Heart Association has some helpful tips on how to identify and avoid salty foods, both at the grocer and when eating out.  My approach is to learn from experience.  When I wake up feeling like the Salt Monster, I remember what I ate the day before and I resolve to avoid it in the future.  It’s why I don’t eat chips, it’s why I never eat Chinese carryout anymore, and it’s why you won’t find canned soup in our cupboards.

ESFOUO

Monday morning when I woke up, it was clear that the day before I had been exposed to ESFOUO — that is, excessively salty food of unknown origin.

The interior of my mouth was puckered, my tongue was coated in a brackish seawater film, and it felt like you could chip salt crystals off the crust on my teeth.  I wanted to drink about a gallon of water to rehydrate.

My brushing the night before had not saved me from my briny fate.  It was as if the salt from the ESFOUO had found every crack and crevice unreachable by human toothbrush and lain dormant, then rose and spread its foul dessication while I slept.

What was the ESFOUO?  Who knows?  I hadn’t eaten cheap Chinese food, which is a standard ESFOUO culprit.  (I sometimes wonder whether General Tso actually defeated opposing armies by chicken-based salt poisoning.)  I’d had a superdog and fries at the Browns game, drank a beer pre-game, ate some cereal, and had a piece of store-bought pecan pie with Cool Whip.  So, which was it?  Was the superdog chock full of salty preservatives, or was it the pecan pie?  Or did that unique combination of grub meld into a witches’ brew of salinity that attacked my defenseless mouth?

It took repeated brushings, Listerine garglings, and mass water infusion to return my mouth to a passable state.  With that disgusting experience still fresh in my memory, I’ll be examining every morsel carefully for the next few days, wondering if I am unwittingly ingesting another ESFOUO.