Politics & Policy

Powder Keg

Horrifying salt!

There’s a menace abroad in the land, a lethal white powder that is being consumed by sensation-seekers all across America. And like meth and other fashionable horrors, this scourge is not confined to the mean streets of the big city, but can be found in the small towns, big malls and red states of the heartland. Worse still, there’s disturbing evidence that many otherwise responsible people are being tricked into taking this substance; horrifying report after horrifying report of innocent and unsuspecting individuals swallowing food cynically spiked with this silent and seductive killer, a killer which is, some say, responsible for the loss of 150,000 Americans–that’s nearly forty times the battlefield death toll at Antietam–each year.

The name of this killer? Salt. That’s right. SALT. As in shakers. As on plates. As on fries. Good old, familiar, deceitful sodium chloride, unmasked at last as a Dahmer at dinner and a Bundy at breakfast, a smooth-flowing serial killer found lurking even in our morning cereal. And who has done the unmasking? Somehow I think that you can already know the answer. Yup, once again that bizarre collection of neurotics, nannies, killjoys, hysterics, and scolds better, if misleadingly, known as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has dreamt up yet another way to poison the pleasure that Americans take in their food.

At the end of February, CSPI published a new report, “Salt: The Forgotten Killer,” and announced legal action against the FDA. Its lawsuit is designed to compel the agency to declare salt a “food additive”, something that could be the prelude to mandating lower sodium levels in processed and restaurant foods. There is “no way”, claimed CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, that the “FDA can look at the science and say with a straight face that salt is ‘generally recognized as safe’”.

To be fair, there is slightly more justification for the assault on salt than many earlier campaigns against just about anything that might cheer up a meal (caffeine, frozen desserts, fried mozzarella sticks, garlic bread, General Tso’s chicken, alcohol, fettuccine alfredo, meatloaf, cookie dough, the Cold Stone Creamery’s Mud Pie Mojo, and so, so much more). Most medical professionals do indeed believe that too much salt in the diet can lead to high blood pressure (high blood pressure is a major contributory factor in cardiovascular disease), but there are dissenters. To Jacobson, those who disagree with his views are nothing more than noisy “contrarians” basing their conclusions on “flawed, misinterpreted” or “fragmentary” research, harsh words that, coming from CSPI, conjure up thoughts of stones and glass houses.

In fact, the science is somewhat less clear-cut than the Center’s researchers would like you to know. Their report has nothing to say about a 2002 study published in The British Medical Journal that showed no decrease in either the death rate or the incidence of cardiovascular disease among the subjects of the study who reduced their salt intake. Jacobson is also silent about the fact that, despite years of research, links between lower sodium intake and improved health in the general population remain awkwardly elusive. As for those noisy “contrarians,” their ranks include former presidents of the American Heart Association and the American Society of Hypertension, and, just last year, a number of Canadian medical groups including the Canadian Hypertension Society, the Canadian Coalition for High Blood Pressure Prevention and Control, and the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

Jacobson does, however, find time to bring his readers the good news about the Yanomami, rainforest Indians, who consume only 20 mg of sodium a day (less than one percent of the average American’s intake) and “are healthy, do not gain weight as they age, and are totally free of high blood pressure.” Curiously, he does not bother to explain that the Yanomami live in miserable Stone Age squalor, eat the powdered bones of their dead (mixed in with a banana soup, since you ask), and on average only just make it past the age of 40. Call me fussy, Dr. Jacobson, but I’ll look elsewhere for nutritional inspiration.

Perhaps it’s best to sidestep this controversy for now and just take time to savor Jacobson’s jeremiad as yet another sample of how the CSPI’s chow-time Comstocks manipulate the media, the science and the public in the interest of taking aim, yet again, at their real foe: fun.

As is its usual practice, CSPI begins this latest onslaught with tales of a spectacular death toll (those 150,000 hardy, but unfortunate, Americans who manage to escape the carnage brought by passive smoking, obesity and the Second Amendment only to succumb to a condiment) and then piles on from there. “This innocent-looking white substance” may, says Jacobson, a man clearly unaware of what anchovy can do to pizza, “be the single deadliest ingredient in our food supply.”

And as usual, the language of these latter-day puritans resembles nothing so much as the darker, more lurid sermons of their stern black-hat/black-suit predecessors of three centuries before. The report is morbid and overblown; its author appears fixated on the horrible fate that awaits those who have sinned: “[T]he salt in our diets has turned our hearts and arteries into ticking time bombs, time bombs that explode in tens of thousands of Americans every year.”

That’s not to say that reading this grim, grating report is entirely without its rewards. The CSPI is justly celebrated for its obsessive exploration of the wilder regions of American food rococo, and, in this respect at least, Salt: The Forgotten Killer does not disappoint. While the appearance of that notorious repeat offender, General Tso’s chicken (with rice, 3,150 mg of sodium), on CSPI’s salty rap sheet won’t come as much of a surprise, fans of extreme cuisine will be delighted to learn of the existence of two salt-mountainous treats from Denny’s–the robust Lumberjack Slam (two eggs, three hotcakes with margarine and syrup, ham, two strips of bacon, two sausage links and 4,460 mg of Lot’s wife), and the disturbingly-named Moons Over My Hammy (ham and egg sandwich with Swiss and American cheese on sourdough and a mere 2,700 mg of the deadliest single ingredient in our food supply).

Jacobson argues that those who feast on such delicacies are unaware quite how much salt they are consuming, an argument that dovetails neatly with CSPI’s longstanding campaign to compel chain restaurants to list nutritional data on their menus. Eating out is, writes Jacobson, “basically a nutritional crap shoot”, a statement that implies that most people are too dumb to understand that Moons Over My Hammy may not exactly pass muster as health food. But Jacobson’s claims should come as no surprise. Without the assumption that Americans are incapable of deciding for themselves what to eat, there would be no room for the big government paternalism so relentlessly advocated by CSPI.

But, ironically, if consumers are unclear as to what they ought to be munching, it is organizations such as CSPI that must take their share of the blame. Jacobson half-acknowledges this when, in the course of bemoaning the fact that Americans seem less worried about sodium than they were some years ago, he notes that “the public’s concern about salt’s harmfulness has steadily diminished, as controversies over low-carb diets, trans fats, genetically engineered foods, and other topics have dominated the headlines,” controversies (which Jacobson might have said, but didn’t) in which his own center has played no small part. The constant food scares generated by the health mullahs at a time when average life expectancy in the U.S. has just reached a new high have done nothing other than increase consumers’ confusion, cynicism, and the chance that genuinely good advice gets junked as junk science.

The best counsel remains, as it always has been, a balanced diet, moderate exercise and, good news, maybe a drink or two, but then that’s the sort of common sense that would leave no room for a CSPI, let alone the overbearing measures that Jacobson would like to see imposed on the rest of us. It’s revealing that the center is trying to bully the FDA through litigation rather than by more democratic measures, but its lawsuit against the government agency is doubtless only the beginning. If salt were to be no longer “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, it would only be a matter of time before the usual cabal of “public interest” lawyers and the tort bar turn their attention to the food companies and restaurant chains and dig up a salt-scarred plaintiff or two.

And that would not be the end of it. Jacobson’s report concludes with “an agenda for action” that includes mandatory sodium limits in processed food, and consideration of a “salt tax” (in addition, presumably, to the proposed Twinkie tax we have all read so much about). In short, therefore, the policy recommendations from an organization often misdescribed as a consumer group would, if implemented, mean less choice, not more.

They need to be taken with a pinch of you know what.

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