Like many professional chefs, Michael Olson relies on muscle memory in regards to salt. He has spent decades in kitchens, honing this capability to comprehend through taste, touch and feel when to layer salt to a dish — and how much to add at anbsp;time.
And if they are cooking blanched haricots verts, or a terrine of foie gras, pretty much every cook he has ever worked with depends upon that exact same instinct. “It is kind of a sweet spot,” henbsp;stated.
“Rarely, rarely, seldom,” do professional painters quantify thenbsp;stuff.
However they may have tonbsp;begin.
Over the last year, the federal Liberal government was putting in place healthy-eating policies, in an attempt to curb sugar, saturated fat and other problematic nutrients. It is now turning its attention to salt, such as salt on restaurantnbsp;menus.
In the year ahead, Health Canada intends to draft a policy that could set goals for sodium decrease in the restaurant sector. The section wraps up consultations with the sector this week and expects to have goals set up at the end of 2019. What those goals would look like, and that are affected — if just the big restaurant chains, or restaurants — is still up in the atmosphere. Also up in the air is whether the goals are voluntary ornbsp;compulsory.
What’s clear is this: The average Canadian adult consumes “harmful” amounts of sodium daily — about 3,400 mg, far exceeding the recommended limit of 2,300 mg. A high-sodium diet increases the risk of high blood pressure, a significant cause of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Bringing Canadians’ intake within the recommended range of 1,500 and 2,300 mg could reduce cardiovascular disease by 13 percent every year, according to Health Canada — an yearly health-care saving of aboutnbsp;$1.3-billion.
With Ottawa’s plan still in its early phases, “everything is on the table,” said Alfred Aziz, chief of nutrition regulations and criteria at Health Canada. “Our purpose is to reduce risk to health brought on by excessive sodium intake. Whichever step will help us get there, we’ll be taking a look at thosenbsp;steps.”
However, as Chef Olson can attest, they will have a struggle ahead of them. Restaurants have cited a list of challenges — everything from their complex supply chains (particularly for some multinational restaurant firms), to customer preferences, to the centuries-old customs that govern their usage ofnbsp;salt.
“Chefs are the most stubborn [people] on Earth,” said Mr. Olson, who teaches at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara, Ont. “If someone comes in and tells them not to use [an ingredient], they’ll make it a mission of theirs to use up to theynbsp;can.”
Restaurant foods, by sodium levels
Many years ago, University of Toronto professor Mary L’Abbé, started compiling data on the sodium levels in Canadian restaurants. She was amazed by what shenbsp;discovered.
In her 2013 study, she discovered that in 19 popular sit-down chain restaurants, the normal meal contained 151 percent the amount of sodium recommended — for an entire day. Some side dishes exceeded the daily limit. The same was true with a few children’s menunbsp;things.
A quick scan of numerous chain restaurants’ websites echoes this. Most major chains post nutritional information regarding their menu items on their sites — and in Ontario, some of the advice (calorie counts, but not sodium) is needed to be published on thenbsp;menu.
In the Joey chain restaurants, the rotisserie chicken has 3,840 milligrams of sodium — over 1,500 mg over the recommended limit. The Montreal smoked meat sandwich in Boston Pizza has 3,030nbsp;milligrams.
Fast-food restaurants fared just somewhat better. In Thai Express, the tom yum soup meal comprises 2,900 mg of sodium. At Pizza Hut, one slice of thin-crust Pepperoni Lover’s pizza has over 500nbsp;milligrams.
Even seemingly healthy options constitute a high percentage of the daily sodium limitation. The Mediterranean bowl of quinoa, olives and vegetables at Freshii takes up nearly 65 percent of the daily recommended sodiumnbsp;limit.
Part of the problem is that the ingredients themselves. Many restaurants rely on prepackaged or processed ingredients that themselves are high innbsp;sodium.
In other circumstances, restaurants (and customers) might not know about the sodium contained in certain ingredients. A cup of milk, as an instance, contains more than 100 milligrams of naturally occurring sodium. Bread and other baked products are high in sodium. This helps to explain why a hot chocolate or a blueberry danish in McDonald’s has more sodium than an arrangement of frenchnbsp;fries.
To deal with this, Health Canada set voluntary goals back in 2012 for processed and packaged foods — the results of which have yet to be publiclynbsp;published.
However, the restaurants themselves have just as big of a part to play, ” said Dr. L’Abbé, who chairs the department of nutritional sciences at University ofnbsp;Toronto.
“Placing Fat reduction goals for the restaurant and food-service market is long overdue,” she said. Almost one-third of Canadian family budgets are now spent on eating out. And at restaurants, unlike with packed foods, nutritional information is not always publicly available, which makes it even more challenging for customers to create healthynbsp;decisions.
However, she added, “better late thannbsp;not.”
Canada isn’t alone. In america, the average sodium intake is 3,435 mg per day. In 2008, the sodium intake in Turkey was an astonishing 7,200 mg anbspdaily.
Around the world, nations have taken varied approaches to handling the issue. In Argentina, the government turned to law, including a law requiring restaurants to have on their menus no-salt-added products. The U.K. has set voluntary goals for business — but with close government monitoring. Along with the U.S. last year suggested voluntary “guidelines” for the significant restaurantnbsp;chains.
In Canada, efforts at regulation have seen fits and starts. Over a decade ago, that the Harper government constructed a “sodium working class,” which finally recommended voluntary goals for restaurants. However, the recommendation was nevernbsp;embraced.
Norm Campbell, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, was a member of the working group. The restaurant business at the moment, he said, was “pretty adamantly against the goals and timelines.” Out of all of the groups around the table, “the restaurants were leastnbsp;co-operative.”
Together with the salt issue back on the agenda, Dr. Campbell said he believes a mixed strategy would benbsp;finest.
He’d like to see voluntary goals in Canada phased in over time, with close monitoring by the authorities. Those goals would eventually become compulsory, to ensure a level playing field across thenbsp;sector.
However, “it depends,” he said, “on if the restaurantsnbsp;co-operate.”
‘That will be anbsp;conflict’
Two decades back, restaurants throughout the nation received in their inboxes a manual, titled “The best way to decrease sodium in menunbsp;things.”
The 19-page booklet was created by Restaurants Canada, the lobbying group that represents some 30,000 restaurants throughout the country, including some of the biggest chains. With the book, the team hoped to prove that the restaurant business was already working to decrease sodium — which it was doing so voluntarily, without compulsory targets. According to the group, the top 10 menu items in its members’ restaurants saw a decline in sodium of about 17 percent over the last seven years — changes which were madenbsp;willingly.
The booklet discussed restaurants’ role in reducing salt and contained a assortment of tips. “Ingredients like bacon, cheese or croutons may add a considerable amount of sodium,” it stated. “Consider reducing the amount used or eliminating themnbsp;altogethe”
Another suggestion was to “dilute soy sauce used in recipes and food preparation methods withnbsp;wate”
And yet another: “Don’t add salt to cooking water for boiling potatoes, pasta ornbsp;ric”
For Chef Olson, all the suggestions gave him pause. However, it was the last one that actually worriednbsp;him.
“For everyone to quit putting salt in their pasta water,” he said, before letting out a sigh. “That will be anbsp;conflict.”
The practice of salting pasta water and several other principles surrounding salt, he said, are “foundational” in professional kitchens. “Every time we blanch vegetables, every time we cook past we season thenbsp;wate”
For chefs, salt serves a range of functions. It reduces bitterness in meals. It enriches the other flavors — sweet, sour, umami. To a lot of chefs, salt is what makes food taste great — explained by elBulli chef Ferran Adria as “the only product that changesnbsp;cuisine.”
For the restaurant business, this has been its principal argument against compulsory targets. People enjoy salt, it states — or at the very least, they’ve grown accustomed to it. Add to the perception by many that eating is a “treat,” and this explains why chefs and restaurants have long felt entitled to be so liberal with itsnbsp;use.
This is the reason why, based on Restaurants Canada, that despite the industry’s efforts, a lot of it remains determined by consumer tastes. It is also the reason why the business has traditionally been against mandatorynbsp;goals.
“We’re ready to work with [Health Canada], given we can get clients on-board,” stated Restaurants Canada executive vice-president of government affairs, Joyce Reynolds. “Clients will indicate they are considering reducing sodium but what our members discover is what clients say they want and what they really want isn’t thenbsp;same.”
Some restaurants have experimented with low-sodium things previously, stated Ms. Reynolds — just to have to eliminate those items because absence ofnbsp;demand.
However, studies show that what consumers need cannbsp;change.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average person often can’t taste a difference when salt is reduced in a dish by up to 25 per cent. And studies have shown that when salt is decreased gradually over time, clients’ sense of taste adapt, as does their taste for saltnbsp;amounts.
But other challenges exist also, Ms. Reynolds said. For the larger, multinational restaurant chains, the reformulation of menu items represents a hornet’s nest of logistical challenges. For some restaurant businesses, she said “they are looking at these issues worldwide. They are not only looking at them innbsp;Canada.”
And for the big chains, sodium represents a labor issue — with preseasoned, processed or prepared ingredients means the restaurants may get by with lower-skilled employees in theirnbsp;kitchens.
For the smaller, independent and chef-run restaurants, meanwhile, even measuring sodium is a challenge. Short of lab-testing, it can be tough to compute sodium levels, including the amount inherent in raw ingredients. Plus, as Chef Olson emphasized, many cooks in these smaller, independent restaurants rely not on recipes, but go by taste, touch andnbsp;texture.
Despite all this, Mr. Olson stated he agrees with the objective of earning restaurant food healthier. He expects that other chefs will come aroundnbsp;also.
“I think there is a chance to change our perspectives,” he said. In his kitchen, rather than reaching for the salt, he is increasingly using lemon or hot sauce to finish a dish. Sometimes he’ll throw in a “textural” element instead, such as crunchynbsp;breadcrumbs.
Canadians are eating out regularly now and not only on special occasions, ” he said. And restaurants will need to be mindful ofnbsp;this.
“As professional cooks,” he explained, “we can not continue in exactly the identical effort of earning each meal somebody’s death-rownbsp;dinne”
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