Good cooks salt to taste. It’s a tactile sensory skill that develops over time. Whether or not it’s “healthy” depends on analysts like me who know how to count and measure. But more on that later.
That picture of those beautiful tomatoes was taken last year mid-September at a farm on the west bank of the Hudson River. I had spent the whole month of August searching for perfection, but it wasn’t until September that I found what I was looking for – a perfect tomato. We were invited to take a few home so I carefully hand picked a couple of beauties off the vine as we were leaving.
The taste, complexity of flavors, and texture met every expectation that the gorgeous photo promised. Perfect tomatoes do not require a recipe. All you need to do is slice and serve dressing with your best extra virgin olive oil and some salt.
Nothing could be easier or simpler or more delicious. When it comes to tomatoes I always salt to taste. Just enough to enhance the complex flavors of a perfect vine ripened tomato but never so much that those delicate flavors are overwhelmed.
THE VIEW FROM MY KITCHEN WINDOW
Analysis requires changing hats. Trust me when I say it requires a completely different mindset. Here’s what I had to do to make an honest estimate of how much salt to use for the nutrition label.
First I weighed out 10 grams of salt of the flake salt I use. Then I counted the number of two-finger pinches in those 10 grams. And I did the count twice. And if I were working as an analyst for a restaurant menu, I would have done it a lot more than just twice.
Then I cut up a tomato, seasoned to taste, and kept track of how many two-finger pinches I used. The results are reflected in the nutrition label posted above.
My plate of sliced tomatoes fails the Kiss of Death test. My local vine ripened seasonal tomatoes seasoned to taste can’t be both “healthy” and palatable at the same time. It’s one or the other — “healthy” or palatable.
Our Dietary Guidelines and Nutrition Facts Label take what is called a binary approach. Only low sodium qualifies as “healthy”. It’s a valid evidenced based approach supported by the concept of Chronic Disease Risk Reduction Intake (CDRR). The CDRR for sodium is a constant 2.3 grams per day for adults of any age, gender, or level of physical activity. Low sodium = reduced risk = healthy.
The inference is, however, that by extension moderate sodium and high sodium are also not “healthy”. It’s a stern and uncompromising message and enforcement would require setting up a food police.
My concern is that despite good intentions and an evidence-based approach, the nutrition narrative as written is just unhelpful. Simply put, the message will likely fail to improve anyone’s health while potentially having some unintended consequences. The intention was to encourage people to make healthier choices. But in reality, it runs the risk of alienating them. That serves no one’s interest.