Salt is a mineral essential to the human body, yet we tend to think of it as a spice essential to cooking. It sharpens flavour and stimulates the tastebuds, helping make other food tastier and more appetising, and is an important preservative. In countries where salt is not added directly to food, other ingredients (such as soy sauce and other fermented pastes and liquids) add a salty component.
Salt is available as sea salt or rock salt. Sea salt is more highly prized than rock salt, which is mined and must be further refined to make cooking salt and table salt.
Saltiness is masked by sweetness and enhanced by bitterness and sourness. Adding a squeeze of lemon juice to a dish can make it taste saltier without the need to add more salt.
Overconsumption of salt is thought to be linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes, although some critics dispute this. Six grams of salt is a level teaspoonful, but measuring consumption of salt is not as simple as that because 65-85 per cent of the salt we eat is 'hidden' in ready-prepared foods, not added to home-cooked dishes while cooking or at the table. Bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, baked beans and ready-meals can be high in salt, alongside more obviously salty-tasting foods such as crisps, bacon, cheese and olives. In 2006 the Food Standards Agency published voluntary salt reduction targets for food manufacturers and retailers to reduce salt levels by 2010.