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What's Wrong with Freeze Dried Food?

by Bill Greer

Freeze dried food is quick, light, and many people find it reasonably tasty. So what could possibly be wrong with it? To see one possibility, let's take a look at a day in the life of an average backpacker.

When our 40-something subject crawls out of the tent one morning, he spies a package of Mountain House Breakfast Skillet in the food bag, so that becomes breakfast. The package says to use your own tortillas to make a wrap, so he adds the 3 grocery store tortillas they recommend. The half days worth of saturated fat still leaves him a little hungry, so he tops it off with a chunk of Five Star beef jerky. There's a steep hill to climb, so our hero starts feeling a little empty before lunch. He downs a peanut flavored Power Bar and a liter of Nuun sports drink. For lunch, he eats a turkey and cheddar Lunchables from his grocery store. He has another chunk of jerky for an afternoon snack. When supper time comes, since Sierra Club National outings he has been on always start out with soup, he slurps a cup of Knorr tomato soup. Then he moves on to some Mountain House spaghetti with meat sauce. It was a long day and he's starving, so, as many people do, he eats the whole 2 serving bag all by himself and tops it off with some Mountain House chocolate strawberry crunch for desert.

After supper our hero starts to feel less than well. If he's unlucky he may start to feel really bad. He wonders what could be wrong, so he hauls out his trusty calculator (you always carry one of those backpacking, don't you?) searches the trash bag for wrappers, and adds up his salt consumption for the day. He never touched a salt shaker, but still comes up with a grand total of 11,280 milligrams for the day. He wonders if that could be the problem. Could it?

The USDA recommends that those of us over 40 consume no more that 1,500 milligrams of salt per day. The American Heart Association recommends this limit for everyone. So in one day our hero consumed more salt than USDA says is safe for him to consume in a week! If he eats like this for our 5 day Pecos bus trip he will consume over a month's worth of salt. Note that this is the maximum recommended amount without risking your health. They don't imply 1,500 milligrams is good for you. If our hero is at all sensitive to salt his blood pressure could be shooting through the roof. Even if he does not suffer from high blood pressure, his arteries will still be damaged. Salt induced dehydration could make him more prone to altitude sickness. The damage salt does to your heart goes beyond high blood pressure. It damages your kidneys and many other organs. The list goes on and on. Health experts estimate that salt kills about 150,000 people each year. The Center For Science In The Public Interest has sued to have it regulated as a dangerous food additive.

Salt is an acquired taste. After just a few weeks avoiding it you find that salty stuff starts tasting bad. You start noticing flavors salt was hiding. Most, but not all, of these flavors are good. Manufacturers dump lots of salt in their products for a reason. It's a cheap way to hide bad tastes or cheap ingredients. It's a cheap preservative. It hides bitter tastes well.

"But it's a hot day" you protest, "don't I need lots of salt?" Your body does need salt, and on a hot day you can sweat some out. But if you eat much processed food at all it's going to be very hard to keep from getting plenty. Next time you see your doctor ask how much you should consume on a regular day and on a hot day. If he doesn't know find another doctor. Some doctors are not as knowledgeable as they should be about nutrition. Mine says that it's "virtually impossible" to get too little salt. He says drink a sports drink if you want, but what your body needs on a hot day is water sipped almost constantly.

"Salt never bothers me" some say, "You're a wimp." There's no question that salt tolerance varies among individuals. How hard salt hits you depends among other things on your genes, age, race, sex, physical conditioning, and amount of body fat. A 10,000 milligram meal at Chili's may not cause immediate problems for one person while it puts another in the hospital. But just because you can survive something doesn't mean it's good for you. Things that don't kill you don't always make you stronger. High blood pressure, for example, has few symptoms until you drop dead.

Freeze dried food manufacturers have started reducing the amount of salt they dump in their products. It used to be common to find single servings that contained over 2,000 milligrams. Now it is much less common. You can find some flavors that are under 500. Backpacker's Pantry Pesto Salmon Pasta has 55 milligrams. It's really tasty too.

Watch serving sizes. Many people eat an entire package in one meal and that is usually two servings. Mary Janes Farm brand says a package contains 1.5 servings. Who is going to eat 2/3 of a package? The whole thing is none too much after a hard day on the trail. You have to multiply their per-serving salt content by 1.5 to find out how much you're getting. Time for the trusty calculator again.

If you want to lower your salt intake or just find the taste of salty stuff disgusting, you'll probably need to invest in a food dehydrator of your own. They're inexpensive and really expand your choices of what to take when you go camping. Upscale food emporiums like Whole Foods also have more low salt choices than your hiking store or grocery store. The grocery store tortilla in my example menu has 320 milligrams while Whole Foods whole wheat tortillas have 150. Invest in a vacuum sealer and you can package your own snacks and other stuff. Tilia Foodsaver is the best I have tried.

Next time you go shopping for hiking food (or any food for that matter) pay attention to how much salt (aka sodium) it contains. The numbers may surprise you. Soup is a particular villain. For some reason they really dump lots of salt in most soup mixes. If you find most stuff at your local hiking emporium has lots of salt, complain. If enough people do that, or just stop buying salty junk, maybe they'll start making more good stuff. You'll be doing your health a real favor.

Here's where all that salt came from. Salt content and number of servings are from the manufacturer's nutrition panel on the packaging:

Item Servings consumed Salt (milligrams)
Mountain House breakfast skillet 1 1,690
Mission flour tortillas 3 960
Five Star beef jerky 2 1,640
Nunn sport drink 1 liter 360
Turkey & cheddar Lunchables 1 1,160
Power Bar - peanut flavor 1 200
Knorr tomato soup 1 910
Mountain House spaghetti with meat sauce (1 pkg) 2 3,980
Mountain House strawberry crunch 1 380
Total   11,280

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