The Nation's Pulse

A Matter of Bad Taste

Mayor Bloomberg's new anti-salt initiative is hard to stomach.

By 3.12.10

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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.

The Bloomberg administration is presenting its salt reductions as an expansion of consumer choice. Its health commissioner, Thomas Farley, says: "If they want more salt, they can put it on. They can't take salt out of the food they buy." As logical as this sounds, it still doesn't make salt the government's business. Insofar as restrictions expand freedom of choice, the motto might as well be: "We Choose, You Decide."

Many companies, it is important to note, have already jumped on the low-sodium blandwagon. Campbell Soup Company has cut the sodium in its soups by half since the 1980s. In that same decade, Kellogg released low-sodium versions of Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies, which were such a hit that they were dropped four years later.

"Once you start saying you've taken salt down, it's basically equal to, 'It's not going to taste good,'" said Douglas Balentine, director of nutrition and health for Unilever NV.

Taste, needless to say, is important when deciding what to eat. A few years ago, Paul Eastham, a Daily Telegraph correspondent, reported that his 14-year-old daughter had stopped eating vegetables after saltshakers were banned from her school lunchroom. For many people, salt makes healthy food bearable. Yes, they can still add it onto their zucchini, but foods lose their appeal the more adjustments they require. To this extent, salt reduction may mean vegetable reduction.

Politicians who disregard unintended consequences do so at other people's risk. Pregnant women were once told to limit weight gain during pregnancy. However, as a study in the journal Hypertension noted, "limiting weight gain in pregnancy increased fetal morbidity and mortality rates. Women are no longer advised to limit weight gain in pregnancy."

Public health, which hinges on politicized science, is a matter of many lives and many potential deaths, and lives are not saved when personal commandments are made political commands.

Bloomberg, a mayor for whom the political is personal, hates salt -- except when he uses it. Not only does he salt pizza, but he likes his popcorn "so salty that it burns others' lips," as the New York Times put it. He even salts saltine crackers. When you salt salt, the issue is yours and not society's.

One wonders if Bloomberg's salt fetish is related, in some oblique way, to his nationwide salt reductions. If everyone consumes less salt, the mayor will have plenty of hands to hold as he confronts his salt gluttony. Or maybe he just wants to make sure there is enough salt to supply his heavy doses. The implausibility of this scenario does not invalidate the principle underlying it: In the Big Apple, the buck starts where it ostensibly stops.

For Bloomberg, deprivation begins in the public square and ends at home. Luckily for him, the government's kitchen is his castle, and he doesn't have to stomach his own recipes alone.

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.