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The immense weight and impact of sodium
Much has been written about the dangers of salt, and its euphemistic counterpart, sodium, in the American diet, and about high blood pressure and hypertension, which lead to heart disease and premature death. Pretty grim outlook for a mineral holding so much history in Western civilization, from the koshering of meat, preserving of cod and the Latin root for the word“salad.” Salt also serves as a metaphor for Renaissance humanists with its ability to extract the essential spirit of food, making food taste better by making it taste more like itself.
When did salt become such a threat to our mortality?
It’s difficult to contemplate the impact of salt in human history, while also believing American nutrition advice that “salt is killing us.” Whenever new nutritional advice goes against the plight of tens-of-thousands of years of human history, we know something must be lost in translation. And so we investigate, through our own common sense and constant skepticism of 21st-century American food politics, to find a better answer.
When we study the American food system, we must remember the products we buy on supermarket shelves are just that: products. And just like any other product, food products are meant to make profits for the producer, and not necessarily to promote healthy American food culture as many of us would like to imagine.
At any major food corporation such as Unilever, Nestle or Nabisco, we must remember their employees are not required to be passionate about food and health. The majority of people working for these corporations have business, law or marketing degrees without any foodie prerequisites. Why? Because a person with a business degree can sell anything, and doesn’t necessarily care about what they sell, as long as it’s profitable. A business school graduate could sell cookies for Nabisco, ketchup for Heinz or tires for Goodyear. It doesn’t matter, because they can push product for profit.
What does this have to do with salt?
Salt is an inexpensive filler to food products, and conveniently enough is quite heavy, especially when used to bind water, which, ironically enough, is another very inexpensive and heavy filler. Salt, bounded with water, creates more weight and volume in food products, commanding higher prices at the store for lower production costs.
Food corporations, and their business/law/marketing employees, have figured out that weight and volume is a very important factor in consumer food choice. Consumers are more likely to buy a 12-ounce jar of tomato sauce over a 10-ounce jar, especially if it is the same price, or better yet, cheaper than the smaller jar. But what makes up the percentage of weight/volume in any given jar of tomato sauce, can of soup or sliced deli meat demands further research. Turning to the nutrition label, food products especially high in sodium are exploiting this tactic, and ought to be avoided for this reason. Tomatoes in tomato sauce, or the turkey in lunch meat, are much more expensive than salt/water, and food producers use this to their advantage to lower production costs and increase profits.
However, using too much salt presents a problem: taste. Nature gave humans the ability to reject over-consumption of salt with our perceptive tongues. If food is too salty, our tongue tells us not to eat it. To overcome this problem, food producers disguise salty taste with other flavors, like sugar, which happens to be another inexpensive filler. Salt, water and sugar create immense weight and volume in food products, allowing producers to cut back on other, more expensive ingredients, while disguising their taste by using proper proportions of salt/water/sugar mixtures. Highly educated employees of food corporations analyze food product content in this way, down to the smallest milligram, to increase profit.
The problem with sodium in American food products? It’s used as a cheap way to expand product profit, while its taste is hidden beyond perception.
I applaud people like Dr. Oz, Mayor Bloomberg and the countless nutritionists who advise people to reduce sodium intake. But they don’t explain where this excess salt comes from, and why it is so ubiquitous in our food system. When we use salt on our homemade food, we salt to taste, meaning we don’t use too much. We certainly would not disguise excessive salt in homemade food by tricking our tongue with salt/water/sugar binding techniques to create a heavier food product demanding higher prices for a more inferior product in the mass-market economy. That would be a silly waste of time.
Sodium is not a health concern for 21st-century Americans, but rather a political one. What would Western civilization be without salads, the Renaissance, kosher laws or preserved cod? Understand that 21st-century food corporations sell product and push profit at the expense of American health, not the food culture we wish they would.
Aaron Zweig is director of the Food Studies program and a history teacher at the Marvelwood School in Kent, a restaurant cook and an organic gardener.