You already know that too much salt can raise the risk for cardiovascular disease through its effect of raising blood pressure. Unfortunately, many of our favorite foods – canned soups, rice mixes, pasta sauces – are loaded with salt, though low-sodium versions are available. But is it possible to change your taste preference to foods with less salt? Recent research indicates it’s possible, though it may take some patience.
Early salt exposure
Exposure to salt – even at an early age – may influence your preference for salty foods. Infants exposed to foods containing salt prior to six months of age had a greater preference for a salt solution, compared to infants who did not have early exposure to salty foods, according to a 2012 study of 61 infants (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)
This preference for salty taste persisted into preschool, where children in the early salt exposure group as infants were more likely to lick salt from the surface of foods.
However, sensory experiences can influence the acceptance of less palatable flavors, for both children and adults, through repeated exposure. Scientists call this the “mere exposure” effect. Experimental studies from the 1980s show that young children required 6 to 15 taste exposures before accepting a new food or flavor. And recent research shows that adults, too, require repeat exposures to new tastes – in this case, low-sodium versions of familiar foods – before they accept them.
Researchers examined the acceptance of low-salt soup among 37 adults (Food Quality and Preference, May 2012.) Participants were given either no-added-salt soup, or the same soup with 280 milligrams of sodium per serving. After almost daily exposure for eight days, the no-added-salt group showed increased liking for the soup by the third exposure.
In a June 2014 study published in the same journal, acceptance of low-sodium tomato juice was investigated among 83 subjects over 16 weeks. Researchers measured a shift in preference for lower salt in tomato juice after repeat exposure, concluding that salt preference can be altered by exposure alone, even in study subjects who consumed a high-sodium diet.
Since preference for less salty foods may literally be an acquired taste, strategies for lowering salt in your diet should include repeat exposures to low-salt food items. Though it may take numerous exposures before you prefer the new taste, it seems that it is possible to start enjoying the taste of lower salt foods. And that’s a healthy preference to encourage.
– Environmental Nutrition