Although an average grain of table salt is only 0.03 centimeters in length, its effects on your body and your food’s flavor can be gargantuan.
The human body needs around 500 milligrams of salt per day in order to perform vital functions such as contracting muscles, creating nerve impulses and keeping the ratio of water to minerals at a homeostatic level. Because of the importance of salt and the scarcity of it in unprocessed foods, humans have evolved to savor and seek out the mineral, and saltiness has become one of our five basic tastes.
However, salt can do so much more than just increase the level of saltiness in a dish; it can magnify the strength of other flavors as well. An extremely important property of salt is its ability to activate osmosis within water-rich foods. Through osmosis, where water moves from a high water potential area (the food) to a low water potential area (the area where salt is applied), flavors become intensified as the water which dilutes the flavors decreases. This is the reason cured meats like salami taste meatier and dried fruits taste sweeter and richer.
Salt can also manipulate our taste buds into changing our perception of how food tastes. According to Science Focus, “individual [taste buds] actually respond to several tastes each, at different levels of sensitivity.” This means one flavor can interfere with the taste of other flavors, and salt is no exception.
Salt, in low concentrations, lowers bitterness and enhances sweet, sour, and umami, while suppressing sweetness and increasing savoriness at higher concentrations. As such, sprinkling a bit of salt on a tomato will increase its depth of flavor, allowing the sour, sweet and savory notes to pop out, while a large amount of salt on a steak will help it taste meatier.
Despite all the benefits to flavor, it would be wise to not add too much. An excess of salt will raise blood pressure, which in turn damages heart health. It seems that when it comes to salt — from the size of each crystal to the amount added to a dish — a little goes a long way.