Tuesday, December 12

The Salt Police

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There was an insert inside the latest edition of Prevention Magazine promoting their latest book, The Salt Solution, which was being billed as the best way to shed pounds, protect your life, keep you young, indeed, increase your bank account — you name it, they promised it, if you would only give up salt! And they were not talking about merely eschewing the salt shaker — they were talking about hidden salt that seems to lurk at every turn, devilishly intent on causing us harm.

It cited studies that have shown improved sleep, improved concentration, improved disposition and improved sex.  High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity have all been shown to be related to excess salt in the diet.  They cited the proliferation of processed foods in our diets, restaurant foods with hidden salt, and salt hiding in many unexpected places, with the result that we are consuming far too much salt in our diets.

I have not conducted any scientific research.  And I respectfully defer to the scientists who have.  I do not question that too much salt contributes to hypertension and other ills, and that learning how to modify our diet is advisable. 

I have stopped eating in Italian restaurants.  Although I lived for a short time in Italy and love Italian food, the American version of Italian food is insipid by comparison.  Every recipe for pasta calls for salt in the cooking water.  Cooking shows abound on TV, and each program shows the host adding salt to the water.  And yet in Italian restaurants, the pasta that is served is bland, tasting like cardboard with red stuff on top.  Restaurant chefs seem to think that drowning pasta in marinara sauce will somehow imbue it with flavor.  It does not.  I had the “pleasure” of ordering pasta y fagioli soup at a rather high-class bistro recently, and was served a garlicky mélange of something inedible, because it had no salt. 

Salt is one of the most ubiquitous flavor enhancer.  It is one of the cheapest, most abundant condiments.  Salt is a preservative.  And we all need salt in our diets.  Having said that, there is no doubt that many people overeat salt, be it from potato chips to popcorn, pizza or Nachos, there is no doubt that salt is pervasive in our diets.  But so are butter and beer, coffee and cigarettes.  So are corn syrup and monosodium glutamate.  So is a host of other chemicals, preservatives and hydrogenated fats.  My objection is not to the message that we must reduce salt in our diets.  Perhaps it’s true.  My objection is to companies taking it upon themselves to police my consumption.  In the bistro that served the insipid pasta y fagioli soup, I remarked to the server that the soup needed salt (there was no shaker at the table), to which he answered, “Salt isn’t good for you.”  Really!?  But there are other items on the menu which are equally “not good for you,” including steak and duck, and some rather decadent desserts dripping with butter, chocolate, whipped cream and sugar.  In fact, there was a container of sugar and Sweet ‘N Low at the table!  Where do you draw the line?  Obesity and its side effects have been linked to our sedentary lifestyle, as much as our overconsumption of processed foods.  But this is a philosophical matter, one which should focus on educating society in better lifestyles, not policing their choices.

A friend once gave a speech that began, “Who Wants to be a Millionnaire?”  The whole room enthusiastically raised their hands at the prospect of some new bit of information that would improve their lives.  No, this friend promptly produced a pack of cigarettes, and enjoined the group to smoke until they became sick, and then sue the tobacco companies.  That was tongue in cheek, of course, but the message was clear: You cannot eschew the choices that you make.  And so it should be with food.  To be sure, as with cigarettes, studies have shown that the fast food companies are counting on the addictive qualities of some of their offerings in capturing their audiences, and keeping them coming back for more, thus escalating the battle of the bulge.  But there is a question of contributing negligence here.  We as a society have choices to make, and claiming that a substance is addictive is not an excuse. 

As it was with the Prohibition, when government regulation prohibited the selling of spirits, so it is in so many ways now that the tentacles of government are trying to control our lives in many subtle, and not-so-subtle ways.  I say enough.  If you feel you need to reduce your salt (or sugar or fat or what have you) intake, by all means, go for it.  Education is a much better form of power, education both at the school level, as in the media, as in the home.  If you want to learn to love vegetables, learn to prepare them in appetizing ways.  If you want your children to be healthier and more energetic, don’t fall for the easy way out.  We all have choices, and ultimately the power is in our hands. 

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