Steve Chapman

One survey of 33 countries found that despite vast differences in cuisine, people generally take in about 3,700 milligrams of sodium a day, well above what the FDA recommends, decade after decade.

How come? The theory is that we are all biologically predisposed to seek out that much and no more. The Salt Institute, which represents salt companies, makes the argument -- self-serving but not implausible -- that if it is reduced in food, people will up their calorie intake to satisfy their craving.

But even if we assume too much salt is a bad thing, federal regulators have no grounds to dictate how much our food may contain. Any consumers who want less sodium, after all, are free to spurn restaurant meals and grocery items laden with heavy doses.

Food companies don't use salt because they like it but because their customers do. If consumer preferences change -- say, in response to incessant warnings from medical groups -- food products will change as well.

Classifying excess sodium consumption as a "public health" danger mutilates a useful concept. Air pollution, West Nile virus and E. coli are matters of public health because they inflict harm on broad groups of people against their will and often without their knowledge. No one, however, ingests salt without raising fork to mouth.

If I burn toxic waste in my yard, I may force you to inhale compounds that cause illness or death. If I make a meal of pretzels and Virginia ham, by contrast, I pose no hazard to anyone but myself. You can avoid this "public health" threat without the FDA barging into your kitchen.

Eating foods with salt is not a public decision but a private one. That's private, as in: Keep out.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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