Salt Wars: The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet
MIT Press. 275 pp. $26.95
A year after I quit eating sugar and flour in an effort to slay my food demons, I read a section of my medical chart that compared my latest blood-test results with earlier ones. Good cholesterol: way up! Bad cholesterol: way down! It was so satisfying to see that hard data, even if it was in a measure of health that I habitually ignored.
The promise of better cholesterol readings would never have motivated me to change my diet. It took years of accumulated misery around mirrors to make me quit pie. This is one reason it’s hard to get people to care about something as invisible as sodium intake. If high blood pressure caused double chins, sodium-reduction advocates might stand a fighting chance. But for most people, salt remains highly ignorable until a cardiologist or a stroke forces the issue.
In his new book, “Salt Wars,” scientist Michael F. Jacobson makes a compelling argument that salt presents a singular threat to life and finance. Jacobson, who earned his doctorate in microbiology from MIT, is a co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group focused on nutrition and health. He has spent years examining the science and politics around dietary salt. “Salt Wars” illuminates those efforts and why they matter.
Subtitled “The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet,” the book both sounds an alarm and presents an analysis of why so many of us remain content to consume too much salt every day. Inertia might be one factor, but, as Jacobson points out, there are plenty of other, more active forces at play.
”The bottom line is that America is suffering an astounding tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and wasting many billions of dollars annually simply because we are consuming too much sodium,” Jacobson writes. “That kind of toll would cause a national furor if the deaths were immediately obvious after eating a salty meal. But the harm from overly salted foods accumulates quietly and invisibly over the decades.”
Jacobson lays out the reasons salt holds us in its grip. Sodium chloride helps regulate bodily fluids and aids nerve and muscle function, so some salt is necessary for good health.
Our palates appreciate salt even when we don’t recognize a dish as salty. Chefs add salt to many recipes because it brings out other flavors during the cooking process. (This explains why a typical restaurant meal tends to contain more sodium than what you would cook from scratch.) Sodium also inhibits the growth of bacteria, making it almost ubiquitous in many categories of processed and packaged foods. No wonder we’re so acclimated to high salt content.
But how much salt is too much? For more than a century, researchers have dug for answers, seemingly found them,…