“Look everyone! This food is healthy … it’s low in sodium!” That's what restaurants are hoping our reaction will be as they unveil their plans for lower-sodium meals and the removal of saltshakers from restaurant tables. But is it?
I sometimes get tired of the focus on one small part of eating healthy. For example, while many people truly do better on a gluten-free diet (like my daughter), there can be this idea of a food item being healthy if it’s gluten-free. Likewise during the low-fat craze, if a muffin recipe was full of sugar, but low in fat, it had “healthy” plastered on it. The same can be said now for products that claim to be low-carb, paleo, vegan or raw. If it is "vegan" then it must be healthy, right? If a product or restaurant food fits within your parameter of “healthy” whether that is low-salt, no-grain, no animal-products, or whatever it might be that you care about, it is embraced.
But what is a health-promoting food? I don’t think that we can really answer that simply. While my daughter is on a gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free diet, just staying away from those three things doesn’t mean that her diet is healthy or nourishing. Being healthy is so much more then all of that, and her diet has to be well rounded and nutrient-dense to be health promoting. So when we talk about whether some individual decision is a good choice health-wise, we must realize that this is just one small part of a whole world of choices.
Back to the subject of salt; is it a step in the right direction to take away saltshakers at restaurants? In a recent New York Times article
discussing this subject, the editor of the American Journal of Hypertension said, “The science does not support an effort to reduce sodium in people who eat around three and a half grams of sodium a day, and that’s most Americans. Yet here we are doing silly things that are PR. Salt shakers only account for about 10 percent of your salt intake. I don’t think it’s ethically justified.”
On the other side of the debate, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a leading anti-salt flag bearer, said “There is conclusive evidence that high-salt diets lead to hypertension and there is conclusive evidence that hypertension increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.”
Critics, however, point out that it is a leap to link hypertension to heart attacks and strokes, and that with the logistical limitations of following through on a large scale study of salt consumption and risk of heart attacks and strokes, it’s unlikely to be proven anytime soon.
My eye also caught a quote from a customer or Boston Market who was unhappy about the saltshakers being removed from the tables. She said, “I myself don’t eat salt, because I understand the health benefits. But I still feel like I should have the autonomy to make that choice for myself.” A friend of mine also once claimed to never “eat salt” which amazed me until I realized that she never cooked and only ate restaurant food, or pre-packaged food. What she meant was that she never added salt to already salted food. Unfortunately, the education of some people on what is healthy and what is not runs as deep as not adding salt to pre-packaged, pre-salted food. This is a much deeper problem then a saltshaker on the table.
Going back to healthy food being part of a well-balanced diet, I personally think that salt is an important part of a healthy diet. I choose to use unrefined salt, which has trace minerals, and hasn’t gone through the same bleaching, refinement process as most table salts. It also has a much better flavor. An article entitled Salt and our Health
by Morton Satin points out that some studies have actually linked low salt consumption to poor health (such as diabetes), that salt consumption is not rising, but actually lower then some historical standards, and that life expectancy in countries with high salt diets are high.
I suspect that there are far more dangerous ingredients in most of these restaurant foods then salt. While it gives a good "health vibe" to most Americans to say that a dish is “low-sodium” or to take away saltshakers, I am afraid that those actions will hardly have an impact on the health of the majority of the population.
I’d much rather see more restaurants taking pledges to remove genetically modified foods from their menus, to refuse to use cheap, rancid, omega-6 rich vegetable oils, and to throw out products that use any type of food dye or MSG.
Since that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I will have to cook most of our food at home, and happily salt with unrefined sweet-tasting salt.
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