“The War Over Salt” and thoughts on a long life.

The New York Times has an interesting article titled The War Over Salt that reveals the growing battle to try and get the FDA to regulate the amount of salt that the food industry is allowed to use in its products. I find this particularly interesting because, unlike other people who have a sweet tooth, I have a salt tooth. I love salty foods and it goes without saying that I eat more than I really should on a regular basis. I’m well aware that this is not conducive to my health, but that hasn’t stopped me from loving it.

The article talks about how the American Medical Association is putting pressure on the FDA to strip salt of its designation as a “generally safe” food additive and start regulating it. Needless to say the food industry in general, and salt producers in particular, aren’t really happy about this and are lobbying the FDA to hold off on regulating salt in lieu of running some more studies on the effects of lowered sodium consumption:

“There are a variety of effects that can happen with lowering sodium, some of them negative, so I don’t think we should be just considering the one effect of lowering blood pressure,’’ said Dr. Michael H. Alderman, professor of epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Dr. Alderman says he is a consultant to the Salt Institute but that he is not paid for his work.

Most other health experts, however, long ago accepted that excessive sodium consumption leads to various health problems. Along with the American Medical Association, groups like the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine and the government’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute say it has been known for at least two decades that salt-induced high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a significant contributor to heart disease and stroke, the No. 1 and No. 3 causes of death in the United States. (Cancer ranks second.)

In 2004, researchers at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute published a study in The American Journal of Public Health concluding that 150,000 lives could be saved annually if sodium levels in packaged and restaurant foods were cut in half.

Now by this point in the article I was left with the impression that the food industry was just being a bunch of money grubbing scoundrels doing anything they could to keep their profits up much like the tobacco industry did for such a long time, but then it occurred to me that there is a distinct difference between salt, which is actually important to the body, and tobacco, which absolutely is not. While I’m sure the food industry wants to protect their bottom line if they can that hasn’t stopped them from trying to come up with low sodium products for consumers as a response to the health concerns. The trouble is that there’s not really a good salt substitute available and a lot of low sodium foods just don’t sell:

Mr. Dowdie says that Campbell’s Soup has been searching for decades for the aspartame or sucralose of salt — an ingredient that is not the real thing, but tastes very much like it.

The company has devised other, less perfect solutions. One is a concoction of naturally lower-sodium sea salt and various flavorings that allow for 25 percent salt-reduced versions of several of the company’s popular condensed soups.

ConAgra Foods says that, within the last year, it has quietly cut sodium by 18 percent in its Kid Cuisine frozen meals, by 14 percent in its Chef Boyardee products and by 19 percent in its Banquet brand of frozen dinners.

Those reductions might be even greater were it not for a long history of consumer rejection of lower-sodium products. In 2003, ConAgra says, it abandoned a version of its Healthy Choice Chicken Noodle soup that had 360 milligrams of sodium per serving because sales were dismal. Similarly, in 2001 General Mills introduced three varieties of Hamburger Helper that had 25 percent less sodium, only to withdraw the products from shelves less than a year later.

As I’m reading the article I’m slowly finding that I’m being pulled in two different directions about the issue. On the one hand it’s true that a lot of people, myself included, consume way more salt than we really should so reducing our intake is something that should be encouraged. On the other hand it’s something I feel should be encouraged and not enforced through regulation as the AMA and other health organizations would like it to be. Once again my libertarian side is shining through.

The simple truth is that I already know that too much salt is bad for me and most other people know this as well. If I’m really that concerned about it then I should be responsible enough to take matters into my own hands and reduce my salt consumption. At the same time the food industry should be encouraged to continue seeking salt alternatives as well as to try offering low sodium products, but it’s not their fault if most people prefer to keep consuming the higher sodium foods.

Then I had yet another thought inspired in part by the opening of the article:

FRANK HALL knows he probably should not eat Hungry-Man dinners. The frozen meals have as much as 2,230 milligrams of sodium per serving — far more than the government’s recommended daily allowance for older people — and Mr. Hall’s doctors have advised him to strictly limit salt consumption to help keep his blood pressure down.

OK, no problem. Sounds reasonable. Then…

But once a week, when grocery shopping with his granddaughter, Mr. Hall, who is 80 and has heart disease, tosses one or two of the big blue packages in his cart anyway.

The dude is eighty years old! Eighty! All I could think to myself was: Let the poor bastard enjoy his salt while he can. Yeah it might kill him, but he’s FREAKIN’ EIGHTY YEARS OLD! I don’t expect to see eighty myself, but if I do you can bet I won’t be too worried about my salt intake.

At the end I once again found myself pondering a familiar line of thought that I often have after reading such news articles. Namely that there’s this simple fact that we’re all going to die some day no matter what we do and part of what makes life living is how much you enjoy it. Some of what we enjoy can be harmful to us and lead to a shorter life. How much of what we enjoy in life should we sacrifice in order to live longer?

If you ask most folks if they want to live as long as possible they’ll say yes, but if you ask if they’d want to live as long as possible if the last few years of their life were miserable then a lot of folks would change their mind. Sure, I’d love to reach eighty or even a hundred years—that is… so long as I don’t spend those days stuck in a bed drooling on myself for entertainment.

Then there’s the realization that even if I took perfect care of myself there’s nothing that says I won’t be hit by a bus tomorrow. My best friend Bill Owen used to put a lot of thought into what he ate, he wouldn’t touch shellfish for example, and was easily the most health conscious out of our circle of friends. That didn’t make much difference when (as many of you regulars already know) he was killed by a speeding police car at the age of 35.

Consider also the recently deceased Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. He was 44 and that’s still pretty young to die, but he died doing what he loved to do and I’m willing to bet that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Had he played it safe he probably would’ve lived a lot longer, but would he have gotten as much enjoyment out of life if he had?

So I find myself trying to decide where to draw that line in the sand between being happy and living a long life. Cut back on salt and I might not end up with high blood pressure and dieing of a heart attack, but I also won’t enjoy food as much and I could just end up dieing early from some other cause anyway. Then consider that too much salt consumption is just one potential risk. When you stop to think about all the different ways you could die between now and some random future date it makes that risk assessment that much more maddening.

All of that thinking makes it very easy to say to myself, “Self, I’d rather die young and happy than old and miserable.” Which sounds great until I realize that, in many ways, it’s just a rationalization for behavior I know is detrimental to my health. I’m not lying when I say that I’d rather die young if I’m going to be miserable at the end, but at the same time I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to live a long time. I recognize that my salt consumption could be a big problem later, but at the same time I also realize it may never be a factor in how I actually die. I could end up suffering from any of a number of self-inflicted health problems when I’m in my elder years, but I could also end up like the guy who lived to be 112 despite his junk food diet, though I doubt I’d be that lucky. Rumor has it that guy had some good genes in his system.

I don’t really have a point with all of this, it’s just another example of the convoluted thought processes I sometimes get caught up in. Personally I try to be as healthy as I can tolerate being without making my life miserable in the process. It’s arguable how good a job I’m doing in walking that fine line, but it’s the approach I’ve been trying to take. What about you guys? Where do you draw the line?

20 thoughts on ““The War Over Salt” and thoughts on a long life.

  1. After some video I saw of “big sugar” suppressing solid science at a global health conference (by using veiled threats with frightening efficiency), I can tell you with utmost assurance: they don’t have a chance in hell.

  2. “experts” are never really “experts” anyway.  The term “experts” is usually applied to think tank organizations like the Discovery Institute that campaign for a certain agenda and give advice according to the needs of that agenda.  Most often they are sponsored by one side of the debate, the richer side.

    Really experts are known as something else, like scientists or something.  “Experts” just plain bug me.

  3. Walking the fine line is hard, when you are in a profession that requires you to manage your health. I have a sweet tooth myself, a rather nasty one at that. Sadly, I have crossed the fine line and now I am having to suffer because of my over indulgences of sweets. Gained little too much weight for standards.
    But, I don’t believe someone should be misrable trying to keep themselves healthly. Unsure how much sence this is going to make but here it goes; it’s every individuals responciblity to regulate ones own health. Why is the government always stepping in to regulate the population because individuals abuse it, then sue the company or file complaints?
    Correct me if I’m comming from a wrong perpective, open for criticism.

  4. I try to buy salt free stuff as much as I can.  That way, I can add the amount of salt I want.  Seems to me that if the salt’s already absorbed in the food, it doesn’t stand out taste-wise, so I’d rather sprinkle salt on salt free food and get the bigger taste with less salt.

  5. Whilst reading it I remembered Les’ reference to the book – Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do and Consensual Crimes.
    I think there’re a lot of mis-guided people out there who want to legislate all of us into good health.
    If they’d legislate that all of us had to go for a walk for half an hour a day I’d vote for it.
    The penalty for non-compliance could be one hour’s walk a day. wink

  6. I agree with Ragman, though for different reasons. I’m actually quite sensitive to the flavor of salt, so I like it when I can find low sodium products. I usually end up dumping half (or all) of a flavor packet in the trash while attempting to re-create a similar spice mix with less salt.

  7. For 2 years in the 80s, I was walking to a job at a building 1.4 miles away, working on my feet and carrying trays for 8 hours, then walked home.
    I ate seconds of whatever I wanted, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper.
    It ain’t so much the diet is important as the burning off the calories.

  8. I’m on the fence here. I too have a salt tooth. The very first time I visited a beach I got sick because I deliberately drank some ocean water. There were times in my childhood that I would occasionally consume salt all on its own.

    Then again, I know that not everyone’s thrilled with the high-sodium products being thrown at us from all directions, and too much salt doesn’t do a body good.

  9. This is a difficult one to call.  On the one hand, I agree that people should, in principle, decide for themselves what they want to ingest.  On the other hand, I’m not that keen as a taxpayer to pay for other’s health problems.

    Les, you said

    …but then it occurred to me that there is a distinct difference between salt, which is actually important to the body, and tobacco, which absolutely is not.

    Of course this is true.  It should perhaps be pointed out, however, that no one in America dies of salt deprivation nowadays (as far as I can find out), and many die of tobacco and too much salt.

    And Zhyndra- I’m sure you know that the existence of a few very old smokers does not demonstrate the safety of smoking.  Given enough trials, there will always be a few survivors of many rounds of Russian Roulette too.

  10. At the end I once again found myself pondering a familiar line of thought that I often have after reading such news articles. Namely that there’s this simple fact that we’re all going to die some day no matter what we do and part of what makes life living is how much you enjoy it. Some of what we enjoy can be harmful to us and lead to a shorter life. How much of what we enjoy in life should we sacrifice in order to live longer?

    I don’t eat anything that has a “substitute” or synthetic form of salt, sugar, fat, etc.  Sodas in and of themselves are pure crap, so if I’m going to drink one, I want real sugar! It might make me fat or rot my teeth, but it’s not a chemical and doesn’t taste like shit.  When I really want to cut down on sugar (I get on a kick sometimes LOL ), I use stevia to sweeten my iced tea and whatnot – no calories, no carbs, no chemicals; pure plant essence. grin

    I’d like to live a long time, but only if I can be like my (maternal) grandmother – she’s 93 and still working as a receptionist (when she’s not traveling!). If I’m in pain, can’t communicate or can’t take care of myself, fuck that, lemme go.

    I’ve been pondering pondering life & death of late myself:

    The older I get, the more it seems I have to think/talk about dying and death… especially my own.

    Just let me go naturally…

    Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to take care of myself so I can be here with my family as long as possible, but not if “taking care” means I have to stop enjoying the life I’m living, just so I can get maybe get a couple more years at the end of my life.

    I do, however, recognize that I am definitely mure mindful of my own mortality than I was in my 20s and early 30s. grin

  11. OB- I’m with you on soda.  On the rare occasions, two or three times a year, when I get a soda craving, nothing will do but real soda with sugar.

    My brother and his wife grow stevia in their backyard, and I tasted it for the first time last year.  What a bizarre flavor- intensely sweet, yet not synthetic or sugary.

  12. Zilch writes…

    On the one hand, I agree that people should, in principle, decide for themselves what they want to ingest.  On the other hand, I’m not that keen as a taxpayer to pay for other’s health problems.

    This is another one of those arguments I have problems with. The idea that because your tax dollars/insurance payments go to help pay for the health problems of others that you should have a say in how healthy those other people should try to be.

    The truth is that none of us knows for sure how much of a burden we’ll be in the long term. Again even if you live the healthiest life you can there’s nothing that says an inherited genetic problem won’t cause you to have heart disease that causes a heart attack tomorrow that leaves you a drooling vegetable requiring constant and long-term care that will end up being a huge cost. Meanwhile there will always be some people that manage to be a minimal burden despite disregarding all the rules on how to stay healthy.

    Yes, I do feel people should be encouraged to avoid high risk behaviors, but do we really want to get into the habit of mandating it? I admit it’s hard not to get into a slippery slope argument on this one.

  13. The truth is that none of us knows for sure how much of a burden we’ll be in the long term.

    We don’t know for sure.  However, we do have a pretty damn good idea that if one is a smoker (such as myself) or a fattyboombalatty that person will cost more than someone who is not a smoker or fat. 

    That is all well and good when medical costs are borne without reliance from the public coffers.  It starts to matter when the costs are taxed onto your neighbor’s back. 

    I don’t see a difference between a requirement that one must seek a job to receive public funds and a requirement that one must lose weight or stop smoking to receive public funds. If you want public money, we should be able to attach strings to it.

    No smoking bars are bullshit though, for the sole reason that I think they are.  Contradictions in my argument be damned!!!

  14. Indeed, Les.  This is one of those questions where the whole thing is a slippery slope.  You’re right- any one of us could become a burden, through no fault of our own.  There are other imponderables as well.  For instance, statistically speaking, smokers get sick and die younger than nonsmokers.  On the other, it’s been suggested that smokers actually cost less healthcare in the long run than nonsmokers, because they don’t live as long and therefore don’t burden the system as long.  Of course, smokers are not productive members of society as long as nonsmokers either, so it’s difficult to figure out the total effect.

    Another slippery slope: the price of insurance premiums is now based in increasingly sophisticated ways on assessment of risk- are you a smoker, a drinker, how much do you drive?  What about genetic factors?  They can be used to improve the estimate of risk.  Or race?  If you’re buying life insurance, and you’re a young black man, should you pay more?  At what point does risk assessment become intrusive and prejudicial?

    If risk assessment were 100% accurate, the whole concept of “insurance” would be meaningless, since everyone would have to pay exactly what they will need, plus profits.  Of course, accidents will always make assessment less than perfect.  But how good do we want risk assessment to be?  In an ideal world, health care, and other necessities for life, would be freely available to everyone.  But we’re not there yet, and I somehow doubt we will be anytime before the Rapture.

  15. It is the quality of life-specifically lack of stress, which seems to in large part determine longevity. If avoiding the latest fad “bad food” creates stress then fahgeddabaudit! The stress has got to be ten times worse for you.

    All I know is that every time they try and make stuff healthier according to the latest food fad, it just tastes worse. I happen to be a saltaholic and think salt is infinitely more healthy even with extra salt than a sugarholic who will likely develop diabetes, acid reflux, as well as high blood pressure.

    Your body is not fooled by pseudo-healthy food manipulations. Those lowfat pastries substituted more sugar which is addictive while eliminating the fats which will provide satiation. Not to mention they taste like crap.

    I wish I could find flour tortillas made with good old fashioned lard. At least they tasted good, not like sawdust. French fries cooked in beef tallow or lard tasted like something, and didn’t need as much salt to be tasty. We put more salt on cause the ingredients have become tasteless.

    I think much of America’s health issues arise from engineered foods that do not seem to satisfy/satiate which leads to cravings and excess. I think the amount of salt considered excessive in processed foods is a result of the paucity of ingredients, an attempt to make blandness palatable. It is economics- put less costly and fewer ingredients that take less time to produce so the profit margin stays as high as possible.

    It’s not scientific, but it seems like a rational opinion to me.

  16. Another slippery slope: the price of insurance premiums is now based in increasingly sophisticated ways on assessment of risk- are you a smoker, a drinker, how much do you drive?  What about genetic factors?  They can be used to improve the estimate of risk.  Or race?  If you’re buying life insurance, and you’re a young black man, should you pay more?  At what point does risk assessment become intrusive and prejudicial?

    Don’t forget credit score! wink

    Maybe one day our dietary habits will show up on the credit score.  Big (Brother)Database will tally your grocery shopping and factor it into your credit report.  All linked by your SSN, for their convenience.

  17. quasiloco: I think much of America’s health issues arise from engineered foods that do not seem to satisfy/satiate which leads to cravings and excess. I think the amount of salt considered excessive in processed foods is a result of the paucity of ingredients, an attempt to make blandness palatable. It is economics- put less costly and fewer ingredients that take less time to produce so the profit margin stays as high as possible.

    Foods are engineered to be cheap, high margin, and have long shelf life.  Taste can end up secondary, since an effective marketing campaign can convince people that the taste is “good”. 

    It’s easier and cheaper many times to just use the refined chemicals. 

    Many of the foods that were on market during the big “No MSG” message still have no MSG (as far as I can tell), but I’ve noticed a couple of newer products (Kraft EZ mac, for one) that have MSG.

    This is how fucked up everything’s becoming.  Stuff that should last, tools, electronics, appliances, are being constructed cheaper and more disposable, hence getting shorter lifespans.  Foods are getting more engineered, with longer shelf lives to maximize profits.  At what point does Sara Lee or Hormel products* outlive my DVD player???

    *Fruit cake & Spam not included – that shit outlives humans.

  18. Alas, if it were only that simple, everyone could control hypertension!  Actually, there are “Salt-sensitive” and “Salt-resistant” patients out there.  Only the sensitive ones are affected by salt in the diet.  Although there is some evidence that salt affects the cardiovascular system separately from hypertension, this has not been related to the “sensitive” and “resistant” types.

    Once again, we are subject to what I call “cookie cutter” medicine, blanket statements for all patients, when only a subset is affected.

    SG

  19. “No man is an island …”  Yes, I’d rather die young with salty french fries on my lips, than at 95 with pablum there.  In a vacuum.  (Well, I’d rather not die in a vacuum.  I mean, all things being equal.)

    But other things aren’t equal.  And it’s not just health care expenses (public or private), but the impact of my debilitation and/or death on those around me—on relationships in general, and on my family (my wife and daughter) in particular. 

    So I need to be a bit healthier than I might otherwise be inclined because I want to see my daughter through college and into her life—and maybe play with grandkids, too, alongside my wife.

    That said, that’s my own freaking business, and the AMA has no right to do anything more than *warn* me of possible consequences of my behavior.  I don’t think cigarettes should be outlawed, either—just restrict places where folks can smoke so that I don’t have to smell it.

    Rrg.

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