Salt: It’s a crucial component of flavor enhancement, and the thing that keeps you reaching back in the bag for any stray fries that may have escaped your hopeful grasp the first time around. The spice has sparked both ancient conflicts and dinner table arguments, but starting this week, salt has been the source of a new battle between New York City restaurants and health officials. Now, menu items with more than their fair share of the beloved spice are in for some public shaming.

On Tuesday, the New York City health board began requiring restaurants in the city with more than 15 locations nationwide to label items containing more than the recommended daily sodium limit, which comes out to about a teaspoon of the stuff, or 2,300 milligrams.

Restaurants have 90 days to adopt the new labels, which feature a salt shaker within a black triangle.

The labeling requirements follow increasing scrutiny from health experts, who cite the connection between high sodium intake and cardiovascular problems.

While the National Restaurant Association gets busy suing the city’s health department over the new regulations, forward-thinking restaurants are looking into ways to decrease salt content on menus while still delivering on craveable flavor.

The solution many menu-makers are coming across is simply to swap out excessive salt with spice of a different kind—especially of the hot variety.

“When you lower sodium in your recipes, you’re inherently removing some of the flavor, or at least something that’s enhancing the other flavors in the dish,” says Tabasco’s executive chef, Jud McLester. “Adding hot sauce in measured levels helps the other flavors shine without overpowering them with heat.”

McLester adds that consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about the nuanced flavor profiles that contain heat, citing Tabasco’s Habanero Sauce, which incorporates mango, papaya, and tamarind along with the pepper itself to achieve a complex sweet-and-spicy combination. Flavors such as Chipotle and Sriracha have also seen consistent growth.

Heat is useful not only for its flavor-enhancing qualities, but for its versatility, with the ability to traverse multiple cuisines and types of dishes, from wasabi wontons to jalapeno hot wings.

The substitution works so well in part because salt and umami are grouped together on the taste spectrum. The fermentation process many hot sauces undergo give it the umami flavor that can be lost when salt is removed. ensuring that customers still get the satisfaction they expect.   

So, amidst fear that the new regulations might scare away health-conscious consumers, there is also the possibility that this bump in the road could spur culinary innovation and draw in guests seeking fresh (or fiery) flavors.

By Emily Byrd

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News, Legal, Menu Innovations