Your Cookies (Probably) Won't Explode!

Taste buds can be rehabilitated. They are, in fact, very malleable little fellas: When they can't be with a food they love, they can quite readily learn to love the food they're with.
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If you reduce the sodium content of cookies you bake (or talk someone into baking for you), they won't explode. I have data! We'll get back to this.

There seems to be debate these days about almost everything we thought we knew about nutrition and health. There is the argument that sugar, and more specifically fructose, is toxic and the one thing fundamentally wrong with the modern diet -- and there are opposing views, mine among them.

There is the argument that excess sodium may be the single most important liability of modern eating, accounting for some 150,000 deaths a year -- and opposing arguments. There are the time-honored arguments for the importance of the calorie, and arguments that calories don't really count.

I maintain, however, through all the sound and fury, much of which signifies nothing more than a theory du jour, that we are NOT clueless about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens. The basic pattern of healthful eating is very well-established, and convincingly evidence-based. And the health benefits attached to such a pattern are profound.

That pattern -- foods close to nature, minimally processed, mostly plants -- is inextricably associated with less sugar intake, less sodium intake, and lower calorie intake. So however important each of these trees is or isn't, they are an important part of the forest.

Getting there from here would be a good thing, but it's clearly something most Americans can't figure out how to do. The fact that it's so hard is not by accident -- the food industry has done all it can to keep you lost in the dark woods of a profitable status quo.

Part of what the industry has done is to propagate an arms race -- with your taste buds. Human taste buds are predisposed to like sweet -- so putting sugar in food is apt to make people like it. Now imagine, though, that your competitor's product is outselling yours because it has just a bit more sugar -- what are you to do? Increase your own sugar content.

See where this can lead? More sugar means sweeter; sweeter means tastier; tastier means more sales. As manufacturers compete in this area, taste buds start acclimating to more, and more, and more sugar. The more they get, they more they want. And so we wind up with ever more sugar in our food partly because... We're asking for it! We're asking for it because our taste buds are desensitized to sugar the more they get, and need ever more to register satisfaction.

This same scenario applies to salt -- and other properties of foods, too, such as creaminess. The more we get, the more we tend to want. The more we want, the more we get.

Personally, I remain convinced that excess sugar, sodium, and calories are harmful for most if not all of us. But whatever your point of view about sucrose, fructose, or salt, we should be able to agree on this: Whatever blocks our path to a basic, healthful dietary pattern is bad.

Well, sugar and salt do exactly that. Because if your taste buds have acclimated to high levels of both, you will simply prefer more highly processed foods, and reject the simple, unadulterated flavors of simple foods close to nature. You will NOT eat "food, not too much, mostly plants," because you won't like doing that! And you, and perhaps your family, will miss out on the enormous health benefits associated with doing so, which is a terrible shame -- because healthy people have more fun.

But this is all fixable. Taste buds can be rehabilitated. They are, in fact, very malleable little fellas: When they can't be with a food they love, they can quite readily learn to love the food they're with. Particularly if the food they're now with is familiar overall, but just a bit better for you. I maintain: We can love foods that loves us back.

The food industry arms race -- the race to make and sell products we can't resist -- has resulted in some very odd formulations. Breakfast cereals routinely are more concentrated sources of added salt than items in the salty snack aisle. Pasta sauces and salad dressings are frequently more concentrated sources of added sugar than desserts. And we're supposed to be ok with this?

Apparently we are. Every recipe for home-baked cookies, for instance, includes added salt. Have you ever thought to ask -- why do cookies need salt? Do I LIKE salty cookies?

My wife and I did ask, some years ago while working on one of our books. We made the obvious inference: If you don't put salt in home-baked cookies, they presumably explode. But we are both scientists -- my wife has a Ph.D. in neuroscience -- so we decided to test our hypothesis.

Well, my wife did, really -- I mostly watched. We are both scientists, but only my wife knows how to bake! She grew up in Southern France, and learning at her mother's and aunt's knee, is a whiz in the kitchen. But I think my "ra, ra, go Catherine!" was crucial.

In any event, we took the salt in cookie recipes down, and out -- and the cookies did not explode. The shelf life didn't seem to change much either, although admittedly, cookies don't tend to sit around too long! But no obvious liabilities with texture, survival time, or tendency to detonate were discerned.

We really noticed only one thing: Suddenly, the cookies were too sweet. We had not altered the sugar content at all -- but now they were too sweet. The reason is that salt can mask the taste of sugar, and vice versa. Less salt competing for taste buds' attention meant the sugar was more discernible.

So we did the obvious thing: We took down the sugar content, too. And with the sodium reduced, we found the cookies tasted plenty sweet enough with half the sugar they had at the start. We've been eating variations on the theme of these cookies ever since. Much less sodium, much less sugar, and still delicious. Go figure!

The real message of the non-exploding cookie epiphany is, of course, how it can be generalized. There are commercial products that aren't supposed to be salty -- like breakfast cereals -- with a lot of added salt. But there are others without that salt. Choose those lower-salt versions, and you are not just reducing salt in your diet -- you are helping your taste buds be more sensitive to salt. Doing so helps them help you to prefer, and get to, a more wholesome diet overall.

Ditto for the sugar in places like pasta sauce. I call this "stealth sugar" because it may make you eat more, but you don't even realize it's there. Cut down on stealth sugar, and you can make your taste buds more sensitive to sugar -- getting to satisfaction with less -- before ever touching dessert. Before long, you will prefer your desserts less sweet, too.

Personally, I think we eat too much sugar, salt, the wrong kinds of fat, and calories, and I think all of this counts. But regardless of your position on the competing dietary theories du jour, the benefits of a wholesome diet overall are a forest we should all be able to see through these trees. Getting rid of stealth additions of sugar and salt to innumerable foods, and rehabilitating your taste buds, is an important strategy for getting out of these dark woods -- to the luminous health benefits beyond.

Our homegrown data suggest it can readily be done, we can love food that loves us back, and there will be very few injuries related to exploding cookies along the way.

For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

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