21 April 2010

Salty Expat Observations in St Petersburg

A salt mill for sea salt.Image via Wikipedia

I would take that with a pinch of salt!
You are the salt of the earth. Matthew 5,  13-16
Хлеб да соль! Traditional Russian greeting... Bread and salt!

As the so-called Expat Cook... and someone who must eat... I have an interest in Russian food labelling conventions. By observing the situation in St Petersburg we can better understand an aspect of Russian behavior, and return from the market with foods low in salt.

No expat refuge for the low salt types!

I wonder, is there a good place to be an expat if you must have a low salt diet? My taste runs to dry, salty, bitter, sharp, and strong foods. But since 1993, I have had to reduce my salt , particularly since episodes of Brawny edema in the last two years.

My excellent cardiologist has me on a no salt and restricted fluid diet. This is to prevent edema that can come back easily, as my affected heart leaves my kidneys weakened. I am lucky in this situation to not live in the Land of the Hidden Salt. 

Here we use olive oil and vinegar, sour cream, or occasionally mayonnaise (which does have some salt).  Meanwhile back in the States, their are rows of Wishbone and other prepared salad dressings, that have up to a half gram of salt in one serving.

What you see is what you get!

Our modern supermarket has no prepared salad dressings, but jars of caviar and plastic wrapped smoked fish as impulse items at the checkout. In comparison to the US, few things are sold with hidden salt, while many items are clearly salty... and easy to avoid.

Somehow it's like a Russian smile... What you see is what you get!... There are few foods presented with hidden salt, and you can easily spot the obviously salty foods.

I walked to the Season supermarket today to verify that there were no prepared salad dressings for sale. Sometimes we don't see what we are not looking for, and I wanted to be sure about this statement. I found a few jars above a freezer with garlic sauce, spaghetti sauce, but their size was too small to be of any value, and it looked like these items sat there a long time. 
It's been almost twenty years since the big change in '91. If Russians still are not buying packaged dinners and bottled salad dressing, it's going to be a long time till these items catch on. 

Russians have a mindset that packaged prepared foods are sort of dumb... expensive, not very tasty, and not satisfying. To most of them kitchen time is worth it. I hear meanwhile that Americans like to brag by saying how quickly they made a meal. What are they saving time for?

Most Russians think a little extra salt is good for you

At home in our apartment on the 10th floor, we have a typical wooden saltbox hanging by the stove. Most Russians look on salt as a necessary ingredient for their dishes, and good for you.

Just about everything gets a pinch a few times while cooking, and then for good measure there is a round salt dish or salt shaker, солонка, on the table for each to season to taste. Many put on the salt first, and then taste. Larissa tries to not add salt while cooking and checks seasoning for salt additives before using them.

Babula, Larissa's mom, at the dacha last summer, brought her own private supply of salt to the table in a small yoghurt bottle. She likes rough salt and knows it's good for her... After all she has lived with heavy salt intake all her years, from the village of her youth, to the Red Army on the way to Berlin, and her many years as a typist for the government.

Russian cuisine is salt cuisine...

Soleniye oguretz, салона агорец... salted cucumbers, are an integral part of drinking vodka or beer. Every midday meal is expected to have soup, even in the summer. Salonka солонка and Rassolnik рассольник got their names from the Russian word for salt... соль
Salt is added to caviar to prevent freezing (which would destroy the fish eggs).  Malossol, little salt, is the preferred method to process carviar.

Russians still sometimes greet travellers and bride and groom with a loaf of bread held on an embroidered cloth, with a salt cellar balanced, or placed in a hole carved in the top. 
Less is more

Wherever you live, whatever your age, maintaining your salt consumption at 3 to 6 grams a day is essential!

Are you feeling bloated, having trouble tying your shoes? Then cut back on the amount of water you drink, food you eat, and your level of salt intake. For proper cell action, such as osmosis, we need some salt in our diet. Problem is that most people have much more salt than they need. By checking labels and not adding salt, you can feel better than you do now.

Less salt means less kidney stress, better regulation of fluid balances, often lower blood pressure, less loss of calcium. When kidneys excrete an oversupply of salt they also expel needed calcium.

Flavors that salt masks will reappear, making your food more interesting. 

You are less likely to have water retention which over time can lead to high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease.  Salty food gives people an unnatural thirst. It's a medical myth that you need six glasses of water a day.

In sum, high salt can foster high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, calcium (bone) loss, and stomach cancer.

American salt use

American usually eat salted butter. The good news is that their salt is usually fortified with iodine, which prevents goiter and cretinism. The ICCIDD said 70% of households worldwide had iodized salt in 2000.

Russian salt use

Russians use unsalted butter, what Americans call Kosher butter.  Iodine isn't added to salt here.  

Fewer processed foods are consumed, so even with heavy use of the salt shaker, lower salt levels result.

Larissa has never seen processed foods labeled no or low salt in St Petersburg.   Such a label would have no sales appeal here.  Most people think that salt is generally good for you, necessary to bring out flavor, and has no connection with high blood pressure, kidney, or heart disease. 

I have rarely if ever seen a Russian shopper read a label.

The public health authorities have their hands full with campaigns to reduce cigarette, alcohol, and drug use, and low salt seems to get no attention..

Salt facts

Salt is found in bread, cheese, shampoo, soap, and candy.
Sodium Chloride NACL = table salt.  
The world leader of salt production is the United States, with Russia second
Solikamsk, Urals, on the Kama River, has been mining salt since 1430
It's a popular myth but not true that the Roman soldiers were paid in salt, therefore the word salary.
The term salad derives from the Roman practice of salting leafy vegetables.
Salt can be a wound disinfectant.
Some fire extinguishers use salt.
Half of all mined salt is used for the icy roads.
Salt is an inexpensive desiccant and anti-caking agent for powered cheese, other products.
A few peeled potatoes dropped in cooking water will remove a lot of salt.
Ancient man 5,000 years ago used only .25 grams of sodium a day! This changed when the Chinese discovered salt was a good preservative.
Manufacturers add salt to adhere with water, making their product heavier and more expensive.

Salty Statistics

82.5% of salt is used in industry... paper, dyes, soaps... Only 17.5% is used as an ingredient in food. .
75% of our salt ingestion comes from processed foods, such as bread, pizza, and cheese.
Bread accounts for 20% of our salt consumption.

How sodium relates to salt is a basic confusion!

Is sodium the same as salt? No, it's less powerful. To get the amount of salt, you have to multiply the amount of sodium by 2.5.

For example...

If you figure your total sodium today was 2.7... then multiply it by 2.5 to get a true level of salt ingested for the day... 6.75 grams of salt. 

Low salt targets hard to achieve

The British government wants their people to consume no more than 6 grams of salt each day.

500 mg sodium = 1250 mg salt, is an adequate daily amount for adults. But it's rare that anyone achieves even three times this amount... 3.75 grams... because salt is hard to avoid.

A large majority of adults, especially those with high blood pressure, as well as children, should have much less salt... around 3.8 grams a day. Now, many have around 9 to 12 grams of salt a day, a lot of it from candy and other hidden sources

Our well-behaved small neighbor

Finland since 1970 has been working to reduce dietary salt.  The resulting 40% reduction has caused a large drop in average blood pressures, and an 80% reduction in deaths from stroke.

The Salt Institute, a trade group, says that while Finns have reduced their overall daily salt from 14 to 8 grams, health gains these past thirty years have been less than its neighbors that have no low salt programs. Statistics can be a circular exercise.

Reading food labels in Russia
Состав is Russian for ingredients. They are listed according to an international convention of 'decreasing order of proportions'. 

The font size in Russia seems to be unregulated.  Mayonaisse containers have close to illegible font size.

A Call to Action!
Everyone needs to keep an eye on salt consumption, adjust to cultural differences, and beware of processed food laden with salt. Wherever you live, you need to watch your salt, and be alert to the tricky ways ingredients can be presented.  

It is a good idea to check with your local public health office to find out average community levels of salt and iodine.  The salt amount will be high, but the iodine level may be low.  Then check your own statistics.

Now you can put together a plan to improve your overall health by bringing your salt level down, at least to 6 grams, or better, less.  Let us know what you find out, what your plan is, and the reaction of those around you!

References and  resources

http://www.salt.gov.uk/sodium_and_salt.html Salt... Is Your Food Full of It?

Let us know what you think! 
Were you aware of the high amount of salt in processed foods?  
How low do you think you can bring your own salt level?  
Should governments get involved in reducing salt consumption?

To Comment, click the title or 21.4.10.  Then scroll down and click Post a Comment .  We love to hear from you!

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  1. My gf often shocks me by the amount of salt she puts on stuff, we're talking heaps of it!
    not a big fan myself

  2. Your comment just gave me the idea to list 'Putting large amounts of salt on anything that may be edible' as one of the ways to recognize a Russian spy.

    Thanks for visiting!


  3. Interesting as always - I was surprised that you mentioned olive oil, somehow that did not equate to Russia. Salt is big business in my part of the world - we have salt lakes to harvest salt for industrial purposes.

  4. Hi Rob,

    Yes, olive oil makes me think of the Mediterranean, too. Russians over the years have used olive oil in their salads, if affordable.

    Thank you for stopping by!

  5. Nice post and very impressive blog..!!Too much salt is bad,that's why if I cook I usually put a little bit of salt on what I cook..!!Thanks for sharing this wonderful post,good job.!
    restaurant st pete


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