“Now are you absolutely sure I can’t get you anything to drink Sonya … Tea?… Coffee maybe?”
“Ooh well, I suppose if you’re making one, a coffee would be great, thanks, Brian.”
“Of course, no problem! How’d you take it? Milk? Sugar? … Salt?”
“Sorry, Brian… that was milk, sugar and… ?”
“And Salt! ”
“Right… Um… I’ll just take a latte thanks, no sugar”
“Okay, a latte no sugar… and that’s no salt as well yeah?
“… Not unless you’re serving it with chips, Brian.”
Unfortunately, this was not a brief transcript from a less than mediocre odd couple sitcom.
This is, in fact, a transcript taken from our current reality and the sort of horrifying new age question genuinely being put to thousands of coffee drinkers every day.
Do we want salt in our coffee?
The instinctual answer is of course… No. With a big full stop and a capital n.
Don’t get us wrong, salt’s great on many things, from soup to steaks, but as anyone who’s accidentally swallowed a big gulp of seawater can attest to, it hardly makes for a refreshing beverage ingredient.
However, that has not stopped a growing cult of coffee cravers from adding a little sodium chloride to their cappuccinos, with many believing pepper’s partner in crime actually improves the flavors of their morning brew.
It’s become a fast growing trend and along with all the other insane additives people chuck in their brew, salt is just one more alarming ingredient that’s set to become commonplace over the course of the new decade.
But what effect does a little bit of seasoning actually have on the taste of our coffee, and what impact might it have on our health?
To find out exactly why folk are sprinkling a salty surplus into their java, we opened up an official investigation into the benefits and the blunders that come with a salted coffee.
How Putting Salt in Coffee Became Popular
Although some strange trendsetters from a bygone era probably did so too, the appearance of salt in coffee only really became a movement during the last decade thanks to Alton Brown, presenter of popular Food Network show Good Eats.
Mr. Brown is a celebrated cookbook writer who combines his love of food with science to create seriously tasty grub that’s essentially chemically guaranteed to be a winner!
In 2009, his show suggested that viewers start adding a pinch of salt to their coffee grounds during the brewing process, as the flavour would help cut through any overriding bitterness and smooth out any stale or funky tasting tank-stored water in a coffee machine.
This is because salt has been scientifically proven to neutralize bitterness more effectively than sugar and so Brown adds around a quarter of a teaspoon for every 6 tablespoons of grounds.
Thankfully, this is not enough salt to really be able to taste it, but the effect on the coffee flavor should be noticeable!
Unsurprisingly, mainstream media and coffee blogs lapped up the trick once they discovered it works and so adding salt to your drink has become something of an in-the-know secret amongst serious coffee lovers ever since.
In some cultures outside the UK, adding salt to coffee is in fact already very commonplace, especially in areas like Northern Scandinavia, Turkey and Hungary, who were obviously all in on the secret well before Alton Brown caught on.
But why exactly does salt have this effect on our coffee?
The Science of Salted Coffee: How It Works
The most clear and obvious impact salt has when added to coffee is that it neutralizes the common flavors of bitterness.
This is due to its major chemical component being sodium, which research tells us is incredibly effective at suppressing bitter tastes.
The tongue is lined with thousands of taste buds, which are all responsible for picking up the five basic taste types: sweet, salty, bitter, sourness and umami (whatever that is!).
When food hits the tongue, it sets off chemical reactions which are then transmitted to the brain, informing us of what we are tasting.
The biological framework of what produces sweet, salty, sour and umami tastes is very similar, and salt itself is a food which has been proven to amplify all of these other flavours, hence why we use it as a seasoning with most meals!
However, bitterness does not operate in the same way as the other flavors, because bitterness is not a particularly pleasant taste unlike the others.
When our tongue comes into contact with something that’s bitter our taste bud releases calcium ions which send bitter signals to the brain.
For reasons as yet undiscovered, research has suggested that sodium ions in salt override this chemical reaction, meaning no chemical message is sent to the brain, and no bitter flavour is tasted.
This makes it essentially a blocker of bitter flavor in coffee and even more effective at masking unpleasant flavours than sugar, a much more common additive.
And of course, as salt is a flavor enhancer, it serves to only make the good notes of coffee taste bigger and better!
Working Wonders With Water
Not only will added salt help improve the coffee’s flavor, but it will also help spruce up your coffee machine tank water too.
The water that sits around in your coffee maker all day becomes stale after some time, especially if you don’t keep replacing it with fresh H2O everyday!
This is potentially why you may have noticed your evening coffees are never quite as good as the first one of the day, as the water is never fresh.
You might be thinking so what? How much of a difference can it really make? But when you remember that the extraction process results in well over 90% of your coffee being made up of water, it’s easy to see why having odourless, tasteless, clean water is incredibly important.
That being said, emptying and refilling your water tank every time you want a coffee is a little extreme, as well as wasteful.
Adding salt into the mix helps improve the quality of still water as well as increasing it’s density to give your coffee a fuller, thicker texture.
Is Salt In Coffee Healthy?
Salted coffee is often bandied about as a way for people to help reduce their sugar intake.
But this is admittedly a confusing tip when so many of us are also advised to reduce our salt intake.
In terms of coffee though, sugar is an additive which reeks far more havoc.
Coffee offers an array of health benefits thanks to its compounds being filled with nourishing nutrients and antioxidants.
It’s also known that regular coffee intake can increase your day to day energy and help you burn fat.
Unfortunately though, all of these benefits become undone if you’re adding a lot of sugary flavours into your daily dose of caffeine!
Plenty of people see their coffee as an indulgent treat rather than a healthy part of their lifestyle and so cups often end up filled with sweeteners, flavoured syrups and creams which immediately counteract coffee’s positive effects.
If you regularly drink such sugary coffees, it could have drastic effects on your weight and in the long term could contribute to high-sugar related health complications such as diabetes.
Adding salt to your drinks won’t have any of the same effects, and although it won’t taste sweet, it certainly won’t taste bad either thanks to its masking qualities.
And let’s be honest, if you’re pumping your coffee full of sugar anyway, is it possible you maybe just like sugar… not coffee?
There is also some evidence to suggest that by adding salt to your coffee, you’re actually helping replenish instances of sodium loss which can occur in heavy java drinkers.
Caffeine is known to increase the body’s excretions of both sodium and chloride, aka the two chemical components which make up salt.
Research has shown that just four cups of coffee per day can cause additional sodium losses of up to 1200 mg, which is around 3 whole grams of salt!
Considering adults are allowed a maximum salt intake of 6 g per day, this is a huge sodium loss and could potentially cause dehydration, fatigue, dizziness and cognitive impairment if you don’t replace your salt levels.
Naturally then, adding a smidgen of salt to your brew will go some ways to preventing caffeine crashes and nasty side effects associated with low sodium levels!
In fact, despite what you might assume, there’s barely any negative factors associated with adding salt to your coffee at all, provided you do it to a sensible level.
Remember, salt is only taxing on our blood pressure and hearts if we are consuming incredibly large quantities and consuming it in moderation can actually be good for cardio health.
Unlike with sugar, it’s not suggested you take one or two teaspoons of salt with your coffee, as it requires just a miniscule ratio of one teaspoon for every 24 tablespoons of coffee grams to have a positive effect.
This means you’re never going to be in any danger of excess salt intake from your coffee!
So providing you don’t start sprinkling in tablespoons worth at a time and you don’t have any known sodium sensitivity, a salty coffee is undoubtedly going to do you more harm than good!
Dan is a former competition barista and has been honing his knowledge of coffee for over two decades.
He has worked in coffee farms in Peru, as well as roasters in Australia. He now trains new baristas and hosts cupping experiences in Austin.