Mayor Bloomberg’s new anti-salt initiative is hard to stomach.
The other night, after consuming two microwavable White Castle cheeseburgers, I started to agonize. One serving contains not only adequate taste but also 600 milligrams of sodium — 25 percent of the government’s suggested daily allotment — leaving me with only 1800 milligrams to spare for the remaining 21 hours of the day. Following the government’s nutritional advice, as I discovered after a few minutes of trying to do so, is debilitating.
This may have been my “castle,” but every kitchen is the government’s home.
Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the National Salt Reduction Initiative, a set of “voluntary” guidelines to cut the amount of sodium in processed and restaurant foods by 20 percent over the next five years. At a press conference, Bloomberg said, “We’re trying to extend the lives and improve the lives of people who live in this city.”
As he sees it, the best way to do that is to eat 40 percent less sodium in cereals and canned vegetables, 25 percent less sodium in processed cheese, 30 percent less sodium in popcorn, and 25 percent less sodium in peanut butter and hot dogs. In order to make 308 million lives worth living, a mayor is telling a country how to consume grilled cheeses and frankfurters.
Though the guidelines are officially voluntary, they may not stay that way. “If there’s not progress in a few years, we’ll have to consider other options, like legislation,” the city’s former health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden, said.
Some lawmakers already are. On March 5, New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, introduced legislation that would “prohibit restaurants from using salt when preparing customers’ meals.” A restaurant would be fined $1,000 each time a chef cooked with salt.
This is the latest case of salt hysteria. In 1976, the president of Tufts University said salt was “the most dangerous food additive of all.” According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), salt is “perhaps the deadliest ingredient in the food supply.” Bloomberg recently compared salt to asbestos.
Even so, the mayor doesn’t want to get rid of salt altogether. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene stipulates: “A company selling three equally popular lines of crackers could keep one type extra salty as long as its overall cracker portfolio met the target for crackers, measured in milligrams of sodium per 100 grams of cracker.”
Ask yourself: Is this a sentence the government should make?
Many people think so. The NSRI “will save tens of thousands of lives each year,” the health department predicts. For public officials, there is always the temptation to save people whose lives are not at risk.
That’s the problem with this non-problem: There’s no conclusive proof that salt is bad for you, or that eating less of it is good for you. In 1988, a massive intrapopulation study involving 7,300 Scottish men showed that sodium had no effect on blood pressure. A 10-year follow-up to the Scottish Heart Health Survey found no connection between salt intake and health outcomes, suggesting that salt is irrelevant to the Grim Reaper.
Scots, despite 13th-century English accusations to the contrary, are no different than other humans. Italians consume almost 11 grams of salt per day, and yet they rank among the world’s best in cardiovascular health. In 1999, an analysis of the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial database, 14 years in the making, revealed there to be “no relationship observed between dietary sodium and mortality.”
There is, however, evidence that salt acts as an antidepressant, which would explain why couch potatoes are so happy sitting around and eating Doritos.
The science of salt is far from settled. Norman K. Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School believes “the influence of salt intake is too inconsistent and generally too small to mandate policy decisions at the community level.” Finding “the association of sodium intake to health outcomes” to be “modest and inconsistent,” Michael H. Alderman, a hypertension expert at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, concluded: “[N]o single universal dietary recommendation can be scientifically justified.”
But it can be politically justified.
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