You’ve heard about it in your history classes, read about it in your favorite books (looking at you, Game of Thrones), and possibly even experienced it on a long camping trip into the wilderness: salt preserves food. Christopher Columbus, for all the diseases he spread in the New World, kept his crew healthy by salting cod and pork for the long trans-Atlantic journey. Likewise, the Starks and their banner-men, traveling south from Winterfell in George R. R. Martin’s world renowned series, fed their armies on a diet of salted meats and cheeses, with skins wine to wash it all down. And next time you’re out on a camping trip, take a look at how much sodium is in that bag of beef jerky (which, by the way, you don’t have to refrigerate thanks to the salt). It’s no mistake — salt is has been the primary method of preservation for millennia. Cheese is just another one of these well-preserved foods.
Lately however, health-crazed media outlets have sent the public into a panic over cutting salt from our diets. Among many other concerns, excess sodium is cited for increased blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, and obesity. Cheese is the most recent salty food to be called out since, as some sources not-so-scientifically point out, the salinity in some sharp blue cheeses is higher than that of (some) seawater. But the cheesemaking community has fired back with concerns of their own. Their foremost reason that we should keep salt in cheese? You can’t have bacteria-free, safe cheese without it.
But why can’t we have safe cheese without salt? Aren’t there other options for preserving cheese? The short answer is no; salt, at present, is the best and most healthy option. There are certainly a number of chemicals we use as preservatives in modern food – monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one – but they’re largely untested and have their own slew of health concerns, too. Personally, I get migraines when there’s added MSG, and I know that I’m one of the lucky ones with a less-severe reaction. I’d rather not have my head explode from my favorite food (cheese, in case that wasn’t too clear).
So what does salt do to keep us safe? Think of it this way: if you’ve ever gone swimming in the ocean, notice how much quicker your skin shrivels up versus when you swim in a lake or a pool. That’s the salt at work — it’s a dehydrant, and we all know that organisms on earth can’t live without water. For bacteria, the reaction is much more drastic. Bacteria, as well as most other unicellular organisms (think amoebas) don’t have a protective layer of skin; rather, they have thin membranes designed for osmosis – when liquid, especially water, passes through the wall of a cell. In essence, osmosis is how bacteria eat and reproduce. But just as easily as liquids can enter the cell, they can leave it too. So when salt comes in contact with a bacterium, it almost instantaneously sucks all the water out through the cell membrane, killing the organism almost instantly. That means safe, bacteria-free cheese for you to eat!
But the safety benefits of salt aren’t just restricted to bacteria. Although many cheeses need mold for their distinctive, wonderful flavors, not all mold is good mold. Aside from some household strains that can make you sick, an overgrowth of the mold already in your cheese can pose some serious health risks too. Fortunately, though, mold needs moisture to grow, and thanks to salt, that’s not a problem! Especially with hard cheeses like pecorino, salt is heavily applied prior to and during aging, which drains the paste of excess moisture. With washed-rind cheeses, too, a scrubbing of brine removes surface moisture and halts mold growth when the cheese is at its ripest. Chefs use the same salting practices when making charcuterie, as the salinity kills and creates an inhospitable climate for spores of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes Botulism.
When it comes down to it, salt isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially with regard to cheese. With no sodium, we’d definitely get sick, and cheese would be immediately banned by federal agencies as a health risk (not to mention it wouldn’t have much flavor). Even so, an excess of salt can still cause some health concerns. The moral of the story, as it always is, is to eat in moderation. You hear that, scientists and media outlets?
Photo Credit: Green County Tourism