Salt and Sodium More Than Flavor

Where Does Sodium Come From?

Why are salt and other sodium-containing ingredients added in food preparation and processing? Flavor probably comes to mind first. Just a few grains of salt can bring out food's natural flavors—even in sweet foods. However, sodium-containing ingredients play a broader role in the food supply.

• Before the days of refrigeration, people relied on salt to preserve many foods. Salt and sodium-containing ingredients preserve food by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, yeast, and molds—and so prevent food spoilage and foodborne illness.

Even today, many cured foods use salt or an ingredient made with sodium (such as sodium nitrate) as a preservative. For example, ham, sausage, corned beef, and Canadian bacon are cured meats. Another way to preserve vegetables is to soak them in brine, or a solution of water and salt. Eat pickles? Cucumbers and okra are pickled in brine.

  • In many foods, salt affects the texture. For example, yeast breads with salt have a finer texture; salt-free yeast breads tend to be coarser.
  • In some foods, such as cheese, bread dough, and sauerkraut, salt controls the speed of fermentation. Fermentation changes the chemistry of food, and as a result its appearance and flavor.
  • In whipping egg whites or cream, a pinch of salt increases and stabilizes the volume.
  • In processed meats, including sausage, salt and sodium-containing ingredients help hold meat together.
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