No Tears for Salt

Science, technology, and life.
March 16 2009 7:35 AM

No Tears for Salt

First they came for the cigarettes . Then the soda . Then trans fats . Then fast food . Now salt.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Reuters brings the news  from across the Atlantic:


Alarmed by high death rates from strokes in Portugal, deputies from the ruling Socialist party submitted a bill to parliament Friday to slash the use of salt in bread ... The bill calls for salt content to be cut to a maximum of 14 grammes per kg, or by about 25 percent, introducing fines of up to 5,000 euros ($6,435) for exceeding this. ... Socialists have the majority of seats in parliament and the bill is likely to pass without a hitch.

Yes, the socialists. Cue Rush Limbaugh.

The rationales are the same ones we've already used to legislate against trans fats and fast food . Saving lives:

According to the Portuguese Society of High Blood Pressure, a reduction of salt intake by one gramme a day on average would save 2,650 lives per year.

And saving money:

The document links excessive salt consumption to high blood pressure, which in turn causes strokes, generally reduces life expectancy and means high medication costs for the state.

We don't have a viable Socialist Party in the United States. But could salt restrictions happen here? Sure. Little more than a year go, the FDA held a hearing to consider regulating salt as a food additive . Proponents argued that we eat too much salt, that reductions could save 150,000 lives a year, and that we could lower health-care expenses.

Then, a few months ago, New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden, with the asserted support of health departments in other cities, summoned food-company executives to the mayor's residence and urged them, in concert, to cut the salt content of high-sodium foods by 25 percent in five years, and then to cut the same percentage again in the next five years, for a total reduction of nearly 50 percent. He told the New York Times , "If there's not progress in a few years, we'll have to consider other options, like legislation."

Can Frieden and his allies deliver on the legislative threat if the food industry doesn't cooperate? I don't know. In some ways, the more interesting question is what happens if the industry does cooperate. The plan is essentially collusion between the government and an all-encompassing alliance of corporations. The aim is to deprive consumers of the targeted food item, beyond a specified limit, through "quiet, mass reduction." Frieden's team calls it " stealth health ":

He wants to get most of the major food and restaurant companies to do the same thing at the same time ... Key to the plan is a gradual reduction in sodium levels. The theory is that if the salt disappears slowly enough, consumers will not notice. Dr. Sonia Angell, director of cardiovascular health for the city, said: "We've created a whole society of people accustomed to food that is really, really salty. We have to undo that."

I'm supposed to be a raving libertarian . But I like the collusion plan. My six-year-old daughter is a total salt fiend (she's been that way since birth, unlike my son), and even she couldn't finish the can of Progresso vegetable soup she requested for lunch yesterday. Why? Because it has 990 milligrams of sodium—41 percent of the recommended daily allowance. So I poured out the "broth" and substituted hot water, and she gave it the thumbs-up. That's how salty the soup was: The vegetables alone made water taste like broth.

Corn chips are the same way. The number of grocery stores near us that offer unsalted chips has dwindled to one . But that's what I keep in the house, so our kids are used to it. A month ago, we were served Fritos on an airline flight, and we could barely stand them. That's what happens when you dial down the salt volume in your life: You start to notice how absurdly oversalted most prepared foods are.

Dr. Angell is right: Today's unhealthy salt levels have been commercially manufactured. It's now much harder to escape salt than to find it. And nobody's talking about taking away your table salt. If you want to dump 990 milligrams into your soup, it's your funeral .

So here's to you, Dr. Frieden. I hope you and your captains of industry get away with your hush-hush salt-fixing scheme. I want to see whether people really miss all that sodium, or whether they get used to a saner level and don't miss a thing. And I want to see whether we can pull this off without legislation. I'll keep quiet about it if you will.




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