Yes, say the doctors, and the country scrambles to change its eating habits
KILLER SALT screams the book cover from a huge display of volumes with titles like Shake the Salt Habit!, Cooking Without a Grain of Salt and Halt! No Salt. These days they are selling in the the hundreds of thousands.
"Are you a saltaholic?" the insinuating voice asks, as the TV camera eye interrupts the hapless soul at his repast and observes him dousing dish after dish with a blizzard of deadly sodium chloride. It is a scare-the-consumer ad for NoSalt, a brand-new, fast-selling salt substitute. And a prime-time sign of the times. For salt has just pushed to the fore as the guilty food of the year and maybe of the decade.
After years of regarding it as a favorite flavoring, preferred preservative and nutrient, Americans are suddenly saying no to salt. According to a national survey, 40% of the population is trying to cut back. The diamond crystal has become the demon crystal and "the No. 1 food fear," according to California Nutritionist Ronald Deutsch. Says Deutsch, an irreverent observer of food fads: "This society is pervaded by a 'What's the latest hysteria?' attitude when it comes to nutrition, and salt is the latest."
The hysteria may be too strong a response, but there is reason for a healthy concern. Too much salt is known to contribute to hypertension, which is a factor in half the deaths in the U.S. each year. One of four Americans suffers from some form of high blood pressure, though many do not know it. The so-called silent killer, it often remains symptomless and undetected for years until it leads to a disabling or deadly heart attack or stroke. For the unaware and unwary, excess salt is all too often its equally stealthy silent accomplice.
The case against salt (or rather, the sodium that is in salt) has been accumulating steadily. In the mid-1970s, in response to public outcry and Government and medical criticism, manufacturers stopped adding it to baby food. An over-salted infancy, it was thought, could be the start of a lifelong habit. For decades, cutting down on salt has been a primary medical treatment for the control of hypertension. More important, an extraordinary statistical connection has been found between the amount of salt that a population consumes and its incidence of hypertension.
Since World War II, mainly because of the growing popularity of presalted, processed and frozen foods as well as a penchant for eating out, Americans have been taking in megadoses of salt. In the U.S. today the average adult consumes two to 2½ teaspoons a day, more than 20 times what the body needs. An estimated 35 million people suffer from hypertension, 60 million if mild cases are included. Nearly half of the population over 65 years old is affected. Says Boston Hypertension Expert Dr. Lot Page, chief of medicine at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital: "The link between salt and hypertension is as firm as the link between high cholesterol and heart disease."