Image: Himalayan Pink Salt Block

The Public Health campaign against salt seems to be losing ground – for some sociologically interesting reasons.

It’s become one of those facts that everyone knows – too much salt is bad for you, right? But a complete lack of it would be even worse…

So, thank goodness, we’ve got Public Health people and clinical guideline authorities like the UK’s NICE to tell us exactly how much of the white stuff we should be taking in every day so that we can keep that balance right. Although, as you might imagine, approaches can be rather different in different parts of the world.

Even in relatively culturally homogeneous Europe, health authorities and political administrations are markedly varied in how bothered they seem to be about the issue. They aren’t even averse to some mild sniping at each other, as you will find if you have a look at NICE’s recommendations for policy on what you should and shouldn’t be sprinkling on your food. The Westminster administration should, apparently:

Ensure that national policy on salt in England is not weakened by less effective action in other parts of the EU.

Blimey – even NICE have gone all nationalistic. Although “post-Brexit” (as they say nowadays), the guidance will presumably be amended to read: “Damn those continentals and their disgracefully relaxed attitude to their foul salty food!”

But, even when global public health people stubbornly line up behind their overall “salt is basically bad” proposition, they are still facing some serious challenges. Firstly because not all scientists are playing ball and a few are breaking ranks to challenge the orthodoxy. Secondly because, in the very heartlands of the anti-salt movement, sodium chloride has become a massively fashionable and highly-prized (let alone highly-priced) product. And thirdly because salt production, salt consumption and salt-related culture continue to be vibrant and vital facets of societies all around the world.

One of the most recent assaults on health-related salt orthodoxy came in the form of a pop science book – the Salt Fix. This work focused not only on the slightly shaky methodology underpinning the anti-salt movement but also on the heretical proposition that maybe salt consumption should be encouraged by the health lobby. The success of the book brought about a stinging riposte in a New Scientist editorial which took the work to task for its somewhat ‘journalistic’ disregard for the differences between science and pseudo-science.

Publishing the Salt Fix, however, was only made possible by the appearance over several previous years of a body of rather more heavyweight work questioning orthodox positions. If you want to get the full flavour (sorry!) of this movement, then a short Scientific American article from 2011 is a good place to start: Time to End the War on Salt. Here you will find the suggestion that (as with some other circulatory disease risk factors) a lot of reliance has been placed on the data from large-scale observational studies of whole populations, rather than on comparative trials.

Another criticism of anti-salt orthodoxy from within the scientific community is that the relationship between salt consumption, mortality and raised blood pressure is not that simple. Another is that animal bodies regulate salt concentration rather well by mechanisms such as urination and sweating. Another is that some individuals (but not all individuals) in any given population may have ‘salt sensitivity’ and it is this group that needs Public Health attention, not the entire population.

Alongside these scientific voices, and particularly in the richer parts of the English speaking world, a range of culinary and health benefits are extolled by participants in a salt renaissance.

At the ‘new age’ end of the spectrum is the ‘salt is good for you‘ movement, where both the benefits of surrounding yourself with heated and lit salt (it’s the negative ions you know) and the positive effects of natural salt consumption are stressed. Their version of a personal consumption health promotion message is:

Most importantly, listen to your body. Let your salt craving and desire for seasoning dictate how much salt to consume.

As far as the increasing popularity of salt in the kitchen goes, the explosion of choice in standard middle-class supermarkets and delis speaks for itself. It’s mainstream now to be able to choose between pink Himalayan salt, ‘fleurs de sel’ from the French Atlantic coast, sea salt from Cornwall, Suffolk and Anglesea and, of course, the pick of the bunch, estuary salt from Essex.

Image: Our Collection from Stijn Nieuwendijk’s Flickr Photostream

Some consumers are prepared to pay very high prices for what they feel and believe to be unique and special salts from around the world, for example, the exotic ‘nine times heated’ bamboo salt from Korea, the most expensive on the planet. It’s also worth noting that, in this “foodie” subculture, you don’t just put salt on food, you also do the reverse. In fact, if you want to get an idea (in under a minute) of how health and taste go together in this movement, I recommend watching and listening to the first 40 seconds of this YouTube video.

One reason why contemporary salt mania can flourish is that the chemical has been at the heart of human affairs for millennia. The place of sodium chloride in history and culture has been much studied, and academic research into many different facets of the human/salt relationship continues to fascinate. If you can make it to Mexico in the next few days, you could even take in the 2nd International Congress on the Anthropology of Salt (the magnificently monikered saluniversalis). Perhaps more practical would be an hour perusing the book of abstracts of the 1st International Congress.

Historical and archaeological research has indicated that the influences of common salt on the trajectories of societies and empires were seminal. At some unknown point in our cultural development (thought to be, roughly speaking, about 6000 to 10000 years ago) humans began to use salt to preserve and store food for use at a time quite separate from the moment of its production. Possibly more importantly, salting also allowed for systems in which the preserved food could be consumed by people unconnected with its production. These are the kinds of ‘inventions’ which brought about the conditions needed for the development of differentiated and complex societies – essentially by creating the ‘spaces’ in which culture, social stratification and social organisation could flourish. The rest, as they say (quite literally in this case) is history.

So, all in all, spending public money on getting people to think of salt as an enemy might quite soon have to be quietly ditched. As the underpinning science gets complicated, authorities will come under increasing pressure. And as a policy, it has more than a whiff of one of those campaigns that are doomed to failure because they attempt to demonise thousands of years worth of culturally normal behaviour. And that is rarely if ever a good idea.