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Aug 19, 2012 12:33 PM

Why the overtly salted sweets?

It's common knowledge that most people consume more sodium/salt than is required or prudent. I use very little added salt in cooking, and never salt at the table. I am surprised at the rise, in recent years, of the popularity of salted caramel, salted chocolate, and the like. I've avoided ordering it, and when an assortment of chocolates contained a piece topped with coarse salt, I chipped it off. The piece still tasted noticeably salty, which I found very unpleasant. If I wanted salt on my dessert, I'd add it.

I realize there are people who like their food salty, including desserts. But what's the reason chefs and manufacturers are now salting sweet recipes which never used to include extra salt? What's next - throwing a pack of cigarettes into the wood chips in the meat smoker?

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  1. Mixing sweet with savory is a trendy thing in desserts these days. Hence the rise in things like chocolate covered potato chips, bacon ice cream, and sea salt brownies. Another reason chefs put salt on top of desserts to make the flavor pop when you take that first bite. Understandably, it's not for everyone. In America, people are generally used to sweet desserts but salty desserts are actually common in other parts of the world.

    1. Salty sweets just taste good. For instance, caramel on its own can be cloying, due to the sweetness and the rich butterfat, but salt cuts through that, and helps bring out the savory element of the butter and cream, making it more complex. Salted caramel is not a new thing, although it's probably newly trendy in the US (although even in the old days your regular Smuckers brand caramel sauce and things like that generally had a decent pinch of salt in them.)

      As for most people consuming too much salt, well, the science behind the push to reduce salt in our diets is really, really vague and there are plenty of reasons to suspect that a government push to reduce salt in our diets is likely to be just as harmful as the push to get people to eat low fat diets was. Regardless, the little sprinkle of salt on top of a chocolate or a caramel is a minuscule amount compared to what's found in the typical diet (or even an ideal diet, for that matter). The few crystals on a candy to bring out its flavor are far far less than, say, the salt in a bowl of soup or a salad dressing or most entrees. Even if you choose to buy into the trendy anti-salt hysteria, cutting out salted desserts is not the place to start.

      12 Replies
      1. re: Exy00

        I would go so far as to say that the actual dessert the salt is added to is much 'unhealthier' for you than the added salt.

        And comparing a few sprinkles of salt to a pack of cigarettes, in terms of health? Hyperbole much?

        1. re: linguafood

          That's a good point, that chocolate may be tasty but it's doing your arteries no favors in the long run. Worrying about the sprinkle of salt on top is like not eating the parsley on the side of your plate in order to slim down.

          1. re: Exy00

            Jury is still out on chocolate's effect on the cardiovascular system. Small amounts of dark chocolate eaten daily may be neutral or even beneficial.

            A very basic overview:


            1. re: cowboyardee

              I haven't kept up with the research, but I did actually read the original studies -- the full ones, not just summaries in the popular media -- back when that whole hype for chocolate first broke. (That was when I had access to the medical journals through being a university student.)

              The evidence of chocolate being healthy was always really sketchy, frankly. It was in small, quite short studies funded by chocolate manufacturers and I think all of the studies in that first flurry at least involved ensuring that people cut calories to match the amounts of chocolate they were consuming (whereas for probably a lot of us in real life, consuming chocolate is likely to increase calorie consumption.) And what they demonstrated were small changes in what are called surrogate endpoints -- medical tests that are thought to correlate with disease and risk of morbidity, but that aren't themselves actual positive health outcomes. In other words, they didn't involve any evidence that chocolate made heart attacks less likely, or instances of sudden cardiovascular death, or anything like that, just that it improved some measure of arterial bloodflow, at least at the conclusion of the two-week long study. (Leaving open what the results would have been if they had continued for months or years.)

              But regardless of how weak the evidence may be for chocolate being a health food (it was very, very week four or five years ago when they started pushing it, and a lot of the hype was paid for by the manufacturers, but that might be less true now) -- regardless of all that, whether chocolate is healthy or harmful, a few crystals of sea salt on top are not going to make a huge difference. They're not even going to make a significant difference in the eater's sodium consumption that day, so it's silly to worry much about it.

              1. re: Exy00

                As I said above, the jury is still out.

                Interesting (and more on-topic) point about surrogate endpoints - the case against salt (for the average person in good health) is somewhat problematic in itself due to its basis in studies correlating sodium consumption with surrogate endpoints but not CV events and disease itself. The data linking salt consumption to heart attacks and heart failure is rife with this kind of study, though the case linking it specifically to strokes is a little stronger.

        2. re: Exy00

          With all due respect, too much salt is hazardous. I have an elderly parent who undergoes dialysis three times per week at 4.50 hours each appointment. It is not a pleasant process and there are young people who suffer from kidney disease as well. I am not trying to say everyone will get this illness, but it is on the rise and if we read our food labels the salt content is extreme. Compare a North American canned good, tomatoes for example, to the Italian equivalent, much more salt in the North American product. Think about what portion of the population suffers from high blood pressure, if you have this condition you must reduce your salt consumption. Its fine to eat some, but the chefs on today are overdosing the food with it, some literally throw it in a big heap. I do like the salted candy, love fleur de sel, but would not eat it every day, it is a treat.

          1. re: Ruthie789

            Of course too much salt is hazardous to people with kidney disease; the kidneys are responsible for maintaining the right levels of electrolytes in the blood and obviously if they're not working right then being very careful to consume salt (and other minerals) in the right quantities is key.

            That doesn't change the fact that in healthy people who aren't on the sort of dietary restrictions that kidney dialysis patients have to follow need to worry much about salt intake, and the problem with people making these claims about how we need to reduce our salt intake is that there is literally no real data on the effects of reducing salt intake in the general population. No one's ever done a randomized, controlled, double-blinded trial on healthy people. And, in fact, the one study that exists, one done on patients with congestive heart failure, showed a HIGHER mortality rate on patients on sodium-restricted diets.

            Everyone can eat how they choose but it's dangerous for the government to go pushing particular diet plans when there is not yet sufficient evidence to know what the effects will be. The government's short-sighted promotion of low-fat diets, while understandable and well-intended, may well be one of the reasons why the obesity epidemic took off the way it did. Bad advice, even if well-intended, is dangerous.

            And all that aside, focusing on the salt content of a piece of chocolate with salt crystals or a salted caramel is just nuts. The fifty milligrams or whatever of sodium in that small sprinkle of salt is not what makes the thing unhealthy. And if, for whatever misguided reason, you really do wish to reduce your sodium intake, salted desserts are the last place to focus on, because the amount is minuscule compared to your entire sodium intake.

            1. re: Exy00

              Agree with you about the overall sodium intake and in particular the low fat diet. I am concerned about the salt for the obvious reason in my post. A salted carmel certainly is not the source of excess intake. However, I do think the chefs use way too much salt in everything. They salt and season before and adjust with alarming amounts after.

            2. re: Ruthie789

              Only a minority (about 30%) of people with hypertension have the sodium-sensitive type. GPs tend to either ignore this or are just lazy and tell everyone with HBP to reduce salt intake (which also acts indirectly as a way to get them off fatty, high-sugar processed foods...). But, unless you are specifically tested for sodium sensitivity, you won't actually know.

            3. re: Exy00

              One frequently hears chefs and food scientists explain that salt brings out the sweetness in foods - a common example being slicing a lemon and comparing the sourness plain vs. salted,
              That would seem to contradict your assertion that salt cuts through the sweetness of candy, though it may indeed affect tha perception of savory as well. I don't think it does in the case of butter. Unsalted butter has more flavor and complexity than salted, IME.

              Food manutacturers and a large percentage of chefs now emphasize their attempts to produce healthier food. Low/reduced-sodium, low/reduced fat, zero trans-fats, Omega-3 fatty acids, and zero high fructose corn syrup appears on increasingly-more labels and menus. Introducing extra salt to products that have traditionally been enjoyed without it seems hypocritical to me. Of course, the salt on the caramel or the piece of chocolate is not a significant amount in the light of an entire day's intake, but it DOES run contradictory to the major food trend toward healthier. Thankfully, so far it is not hard to avoid. It could contribute to backsliding when salt-lovers are trying to cut back for medical reasons.

              1. re: greygarious

                If a particular chef or restaurant claims to be cutting back on the salt (and other 'bad' stuff), yet puts salt on their bonbons, I would call that hypocritical. But it's not if one set of chefs is cutting back on the salt, while another set continues to use it. It does not make sense to claim that the industry as a whole is hypocritical just because there are conflicting trends in it.

                Nor do I see a problem when Trader Joes sells salted caramels and chocolate, but also sells low sodium foods. They sell reduced fat items, and pure fat items. They sell organic produce, and non-organic.

                1. re: greygarious

                  I don't know how to explain it. It cuts through it by being a counterpoint, which makes it easier to enjoy the sweetness because it's not the only thing there. It makes it more intensely enjoyable by providing a contrast.

                  As for labelling, food manufacturers are always going to cling to whatever chicanery they can legally get away with in regard to silly health claims on packages. Sort of like when jelly beans advertise that they're cholesterol-free, when no jelly bean has cholesterol in it. But the people making salted caramels aren't the ones advertising baloney fiber claims on granola bars, so I don't see why they're hypocrites.

                  But either way, the actual sodium content in a salted chocolate or a salted caramel is a drop in the bucket; it only seems like a large amount because it's big crystals right there. Since that little bit of salt can make a candy that much tastier, I don't see the problem.

              2. Could not agree with you more. I think the trend is due to what we are seeing on the food networks. The chefs are seen seasoning foods with a tremendous amount of salt and have heightened the interest in specialty salts as well. The interest in specialty salts is crossing over into desserts to add flavour, it is a trendy thing to do.

                1. I love salt. I am happy to see it.

                  Especially if it means that the cloyingly sweet, overly processed desserts of my youth are gone.

                  1. Salty (or savory) combinations with sweets heightens the flavor of the sweetness -- some would say that it almost transforms it to another level of sensory pleasure.

                    Take the most basic example. Without some salt in chocolate chip cookie dough, you'll end up with a very flat, one-dimensional cookie that just doesn't taste very good. You can't taste the salt itself, but without the salt you'd definitely notice its absence.

                    The same principle is the reason why some people (e.g. Hispanics, Taiwanese, Japanese) add salt to fruits, such as watermelon, pineapple, melons, etc. It makes what is already a sweet flavor just *that* much better.

                    So to go back to your question about salted caramels or chocolates, it's simply a different type of flavor that one gets when salt and sugar are combined. Salted chocolate tastes significantly different than non-salted chocolate.

                    It's not about tasting the salt, or trying to get more salty foods on the palate. Rather, it's about using flavor combos to create a new taste sensation. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      I made Jacques Torres's famous chocolate chip cookies a bit back, and they called for a sprinkle of coarse salt on top. It was delicious, it would probably make any chocolate chip cookie recipe tastier. And in the whole (large) batch, I doubt I used more than a quarter teaspoon, which means that any reasonable serving of cookies would only have a few extra milligrams of sodium. It was only a tiny smidge extra, but because the crystals were big ones right there on the surface, rather than dispersed through, they were still able to add a certain something that made them much better than they would have been otherwise.