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I eat a lot of salt. It makes almost everything taste better, including:

  • Meat
  • Cookies
  • Vegetables
  • Sauces
  • Chocolate
  • much more

It seems to me like salt makes almost anything better, but it doesn't just make it better because now I taste salt. It enhances the flavor of whatever I eat.

Why? What about salt makes it bring out the flavor in other foods? Also, are there compounds similar to salt (referring to NaCl) that act as flavor enhancers? Does salt add "umami", or something else?

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Our brains are wired to consider food more palatable if the dedicated taste receptors (one of the six basic tastes) for salt are triggered. And in a non-urban world, salt/sodium is a valuable nutrient; the fact we might have it too readily available in the developed world doesn't change that we would DIE on a zero-sodium diet (mind that animal products like meat aren't zero-sodium, and that herbivores tend to love licking salt where they find it!). So our brains have a good evolutionary reason to like salt.

Also, salt actively interferes (negatively) with another basic taste receptor - the receptor for bitterness (which can mean poison both in nature and in the developed world, or at least something we have no use for, eg an alkali). Most aromatic food (think green vegetables or spices) is bitter, and salt both attenuates that perception and balances it making the combined food still desirable for our brain. You end up with an even more palatable food since you can use an aromatic (desirable) and shut out the bitterness (not always desirable) response.

Umami is a different basic taste, probably related to the presence of protein (glutamate, inosinate, guanylate... trigger it - these are amino acids or salts thereof, and an indicator of easily-digestible protein presence).

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    Good answer. Just wanted to add that, as asked by the OP, there are other things available. One example would be Potassium Chloride which is often sold as a salt substitute. – Cindy Feb 2 '17 at 13:06
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    Also re: other "flavor enhancers", Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) was the rock-star flavour enhancer before it got a (now disputed) bad rep ... and "Umami" became "a thing". – Gord Thompson Feb 3 '17 at 1:01
  • Yup, you got the MSG before me. – dougal 5.0.0 Feb 3 '17 at 9:28
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    I described umami to make clear it is very different, not to suggest that umami enhancers (eg amino acid salts* of whatever alkali metal was on sale this week) were similar to salt - they are as similar as to salt as vinegar. ------- * these are CHEMICALLY salts, not GASTRONOMICALLY! – rackandboneman Feb 3 '17 at 9:33
  • the monosodium part of MSG makes it quite close to salt – Agos Feb 10 '17 at 11:25

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