This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Salt Wars, first released on August 23, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
MARK SHEEHAN: There are times where I’ve sort of been like, oh Christ, it’s 20 degrees and I have to go down to the beach to get water right now. Or when I was dealing with the bottom of my trunk being corroded because I’d spilled too much salt water in it over a few months. Things like that, it was like why the hell am I doing this, I can just buy salt.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I’ve made a lot of stuff at home, but I’ve never thought of making my own salt.
NICOLA TWILLEY: But now you can! That’s just one of the secrets of salt we’ll be getting into this week. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And this week, we are all about what has historically been worth its weight in gold, but today you can buy it at the grocery store for just a couple of bucks.
TWILLEY: But that’s the whole history of salt: people making a big fuss about an edible rock. I mean, salt was behind empires, wars, and revolutions. Indian independence, Venetian palazzos, drilling for natural gas—it’s all built on salt.
GRABER: And today, people are still making a huge deal out of salt. But now, it’s all about how much we should be eating. Scientists and public health officials are trying to get us to eat way less salt.
TWILLEY: Plus don’t forget all the foodies with their artisanal handmade salt. There’s a lot of hoopla there.
GRABER: So what is all the fuss about? Why was salt so valuable? How much should we be eating today? And are all those fancy salts worth it?
TWILLEY: We’ve got answers to these questions and much more besides coming right up.
GRABER: But first. A few months ago, we had a fundraising drive, and you guys were awesome. Some of you donated once, some of you are monthly donors on our website or donate every episode on Patreon. That’s super important to us—we can’t thank you enough. But we know that not everybody can help out financially. So here’s where you all can help: you can help us grow.
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TWILLEY: Thank you! And now for some of those ads.
TWILLEY: This episode is also supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.
MICHAEL ALDERMAN: Well, salt is an essential nutrient. In fact, it’s the mechanism by which we communicate between cells and between cells and all that surrounding fluid. So, without an adequate sodium intake, life is not possible.
TWILLEY: That’s Micky Alderman, emeritus professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. And he’s talking about salt too, because everyone is this episode. Sodium is just part of the picture—the thing we call salt, its chemical name is actually sodium chloride.
GRABER: We need both of those substances to live. Chloride helps with digestion and respiration. And sodium, which our bodies can’t make, it transports oxygen and nutrients and nerve impulses it moves muscles, including the heart, which as you might imagine is pretty important. We need sodium chloride. We need salt.
TWILLEY: We each have about 250 grams of salt—that’s like 3 or 4 salt shakers’ worth—in our bodies at all times. We’re constantly losing it and needing to replenish it. But the weird thing is, when you’re low on salt, how do you even know?
MARK KURLANKSKY: That’s kind of a mystery.
GRABER: Mark Kurlansky wrote an entire book on salt. It’s called, appropriately, Salt: A World History.
KURLANSKY: Well, you know, there are a lot of soldiers in World War II in the Pacific who suffered from salt shortages and then they gave them salt pills and they were better. But at no time in this process did they experience, you know, a tremendous increase in the urge to eat salt or no sense of, you know, the way if you lack water you feel thirst. There’s nothing like that with salt. There’s nothing in your body that tells you you’re not getting enough salt. It’s just that you feel sick.
GRABER: It wasn’t a problem that we couldn’t tell when we needed salt way back in evolutionary history. We got plenty of it in our normal diets.
KURLANSKY: It wasn’t necessary. It still isn’t necessary for hunter gatherers. Because you know, if you have a diet of largely red meat you get all the salt you need.
TWILLEY: The Masai people in East Africa actually still get all the salt they need just by bleeding livestock and drink the blood.
KURLANSKY: But as soon as you get into agriculture and commerce the two things that require salt. Agriculture because all mammals require salts, so you have to provide salts or livestock if you’re raising that. And also you don’t get sodium chloride from grain and vegetable diet. So when people shifted that kind of a diet they needed additional salt.
GRABER: Not just people, all animals need salt. And if they don’t get enough of it in the animals and plants they eat, they find other options.
KURLANKSY: They usually get it by finding a place where, a salty place and licking it. Most of the roads in North America were originally animal trails of animals going to salt licks.
TWILLEY: This is one of my favorite factoids in Mark’s book. Turns out that the city of Buffalo in New York is named after a salt lick near Lake Erie. Buffalo had discovered it and created a huge trail to get to it.
GRABER: So that’s how animals get their salt. But once we started farming, we needed to add salt to our diets. Nobody knows how humans figured that out, but we did. And then we had to figure out how to get a hold of it. The oceans were clearly full of salt, but not everybody lived by the ocean.
KURLANSKY: Salt was undoubtedly produced long before we have any records of it. Some of the earliest records we have of it are in ancient China. Some of the earliest records of just about everything are in ancient China because they were very good about making records.
TWILLEY: The earliest written record of salt production in China dates to around 800 BC. And it describes how a whole millennium earlier, their ancestors were already putting ocean water in clay pot and boiling it down to produce salt crystals. Then, at around 200 BC, salt production in China went high tech.
GRABER: Around that time, the governor of what is now Sichuan discovered that these briny pools they used for salt, the water didn’t magically appear. It came from underground. And he got the idea to go drilling for more.
KURLANSKY: They pumped brine and boiled it down and when they started it to, when they started to drill for brine they experienced a lot of fires and explosions, which initially told them that there were dragons or evil spirits or gods that didn’t want them drilling. But eventually they figured out that there was this invisible substance that burned. So they harnessed that with bamboo tubing and used it for the fires to cook down the brine. And that’s actually the earliest recorded use of natural gas.
TWILLEY: This bamboo piping filled with brine and natural gas spread out across the entire countryside like a spider web. You could see it even up till recently. Mark has a photo in his book, and it looks like a roller coaster of tubes on scaffolding, snaking up and down to take advantage of gravity.
GRABER: And then at about the same time in Europe, the Celts took the lead, but instead of drilling, they went digging.
KURLANSKY: And they had deep mines or salt. And, you know, because salt preserves, they had mine collapses, miners in Celtic clothing have been found in mines dating back centuries. So that’s how we know about that.
TWILLEY: The long and short of all of Mark’s stories is that our ancestors went to a huge effort to get hold of salt, especially the ones that didn’t live near the ocean. Which is funny, because salt isn’t rare at all—in fact, there’s tons of it. But it takes a lot of energy to evaporate it from the ocean, so that wasn’t possible everywhere in the world.
GRABER: There’s also a ton of salt in the ground. But until modern geology pointed the way, people had a hard time finding it. And so the net result was that salt was incredibly valuable. It’s hard to stress just how important it was. The word salary and soldier both come from the Latin word sal, or salt.
KURLANSKY: Because Roman soldiers were paid in salts, which they could then trade because it was always a very saleable commodity. So wherever the Roman army went they produced salt.
TWILLEY: Salt literally was money. But it wasn’t usually traded just as white powder. Instead it was smuggled around the world inside food.
KURLANSKY: Really the only way of making food a commodity that could be shipped long distances was to salt it, preserve it with salt. Anything that you wanted to trade including things like sauerkraut, but also salt fish, cheese. You know, you really couldn’t trade in milk or dairy products except for cheese, which is a salted product and will last a long time.
GRABER: Cheese would not exist without salt. In fact, some of the greatest foods humanity has ever produced are only possible with salt. Salt preserves food because it draws out water and kills harmful bacteria. The deliciousness is just a side benefit.
KURLANSKY: Things like bacon and salted anchovies and, not so much in America, but in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean they still eat salted codfish and ham is a salted food. These were all foods that were salted for preservation but we still eat them, just because we like them.
GRABER: As Mark points out, salted codfish, salt cod, is one of those foods that’s still central to so many diets around the world, in Portugal and Spain and Brazil. But salt cod didn’t achieve its popularity because it was tastiest fish ever. Frankly, at least in my opinion, it’s not. Instead, the secret to cod’s global domination is that it could be easily preserved. Fat turns rancid. But cod is lean.
KURLANSKY: Well, cod is a particularly good fish for salting because it has almost no fats and it just salts up really well, its large flakes work well for salting too. And so it it became the dominant fish of Europe. Something like 60 percent of fish that was eaten in Europe was cod at one point.
TWILLEY: Basically you have huge huge quantities of cod, this completely unexploited resource, off the coast of North America. You have hungry Europeans. And you have salt, which means those hungry Europeans could eat the North American cod. Salt cod ended up being so important in European diets from the 16th century on that it’s credited with having prevented several famines.
GRABER: But as we said, until modern geology, salt was considered really precious. Which means that the people who had control over salt had lots of power. The Venetians were first to tax salt. They started in 1281 and made everyone pay taxes on the powder for hundreds of years. And that made Venice one of the absolutely richest places in the world.
TWILLEY: All those beautiful palazzos and the hydraulic engineering for the canals—pretty much paid for with salt. Salt built that city.
GRABER: Salt is behind a lot of power struggles in the world. In fact, just in the last century—and I never learned this in school when I learned about Gandhi—Gandhi’s first rebellion against the British involved salt.
KURLANSKY: The British did not allow Indians to make salt, and forced them to buy British salt from Cheshire. This salt of course was much more expensive than it would have been for them to make their own.
TWILLEY: The British really went a little insane on the whole salt thing. They even planted a giant hedge that crossed the entire country, to make sure no one could trade salt from the Indian coasts illegally.
KURLANSKY: And so Gandhi understood that this was a real popular gripe. Poor people were being forced to buy this British salt they couldn’t afford. So it was a classic example of British colonialism and what they hated about the British Empire. And he presented this to the Congress party as something they could do to really move the movement, to protest salt, and they thought he was kind of nuts. They probably thought he was kind of nuts anyway. But he was actually very media savvy. And so he just created this march to the sea—said I’m going to the sea to make salt, which was a crime, and everybody followed him. And he contacted all of the media, all the British papers and American papers, so that they would follow him, and he turned it into a big media event. You know, he got to the shore where salt was just kind of crusting on the beach. And he picked up a crust and said, there, I’ve made salt and defied the British Empire. And it was hugely popular. Really did a lot to spur the independence movement.
TWILLEY: Gandhi still had an uphill struggle ahead of him, but with the help of salt, he’d really kickstarted the movement for Indian independence.
GRABER: These stories give you a sense of all the economic and power implications of salt, but the reason we love salt go far beyond the fact that our bodies need it and it helps preserve food. It also transforms the flavors of food. Gary Beauchamp is the emeritus director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and he spent his professional life studying salt.
BEAUCHAMP: So, I have often said to the dismay actually of some of my colleagues in the medical profession, that salt is a magic ingredient.
TWILLEY: Salt makes things salty, of course. But it does so much more than that. Like when salt preserves cheese and pork and fish, the proteins break down and rearrange in ways that create all sorts of new umami flavors.
GRABER: Salt also reduces bitterness. The Romans must have known this because salad, that also comes from the Latin word sal, or salt. The Romans poured brine on what must have been bitter greens.
TWILLEY: Which turns out to have been a smart move.
BEAUCHAMP: Salt, particularly the ion sodium itself, is a very, very excellent inhibitor of bitter taste. It doesn’t inhibit all bitter tasting substances but it inhibits a lot of them, it inhibits them profoundly. And so it is our belief that many foods that have salt in them, and particularly the vegetables, which where there are bitter compounds which are both healthy and yet disliked, that sodium helps knock that flavor down. In a complex food what also happens is that if you specifically knock down bitterness, bitterness itself has been inhibiting sweetness. So by adding salt you can literally make things sweeter.
TWILLEY: That’s part of why there’s so much salt in industrially processed foods—even ones that don’t taste salty. It helps preserves them, it helps get rid of any bitter notes produced during the processing, it helps boost sweetness, which we love, and it even helps with texture and color.
GRABER: The point is salt is kind of the wonder drug of the food world. And now, these days, it’s cheap.
BEAUCHAMP: In fact, salt with the exception perhaps of water is the cheapest thing you can put into food. So manufacturers would routinely put probably more salt than was needed because there was no cost downside. And generally speaking it made the food taste much better.
TWILLEY: So now salt is everywhere, in everything. And the question is: is that a good thing? Or is it slowly killing us?
GRABER: And now back to salt.
BEAUCHAMP: Basically I think, my own view is, that at least to some degree our liking for salt, the salty taste of salt, at least is built into us.
TWILLEY: That’s Gary Beauchamp again. And his point is, we love salt. We’re built that way.
BEAUCHAMP: And by built into us, what I mean is that the ability to detect is certainly built in—that’s part of our biology. But even the liking for it is built in because, and this is more speculation than it is science, there’s really no health downside to excess sodium consumption or very little health downside, in a species like us, until we reach middle age or later, where hypertension will lead to heart disease and all those consequences. But from an evolutionary point of view that doesn’t matter because we’re past breeding. And so there’s very little downside to consuming too much salt and very big downside to not consuming enough. And so, you know, I think that erring biologically on consuming more rather than less is probably a good idea.
GRABER: Gary mentioned hypertension and heart disease—and this is where the huge debate is today. We’re about to dive into the salt wars. Scientists are arguing about how much salt we should be eating. They’re publishing major papers in big-name scientific journals that completely disagree with each other.
TWILLEY: And in the middle of all of this scientific back and forth, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—the FDA—they’ve put out new draft guidance on sodium reduction. This is a major statement of the position that the US government is taking in the salt wars. So let’s get into it. Who’s right, and who’s wrong when it comes to salt?
GRABER: We know that we need salt to live. But here’s the basic argument for why we might be eating too much of it today. This is coming straight from another governmental agency, the Centers for Disease Control.
SANDRA JACKSON: So eating too much sodium increases blood pressure which is a major risk factor for two leading causes of death: heart disease and stroke. And one in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure and that’s 71 million Americans.
TWILLEY: That’s Sandra Jackson, she’s an epidemiologist with the CDC. And she’s right. No debate here. There is a clear proven connection between eating more salt and higher blood pressure. The medical reasons are a little complicated, but the science really isn’t.
GRABER: So this seems super straightforward. And in fact this is exactly why we have recommendations from the CDC about how much salt we should eat. They say Americans should eat about 2300 milligrams a day. The American Heart Association goes even lower—they want Americans to eat only 1500 milligrams a day.
TWILLEY: But in fact the average American eats thirty four hundred milligrams a day. And for once, Americans are not the most excessive: the global average is a little more that that—close to 4,000 milligrams a day.
GRABER: And, according to Sandra Jackson at the CDC, that’s far too much.
JACKSON: We found that nearly all Americans regardless of age race and gender are consuming too much sodium. About 90 percent of adults and children are eating more sodium than is recommended in the dietary guidelines for Americans.
GRABER: Ninety percent of us eat too much salt? Is Sandra and the CDC really saying that almost ALL Americans eat too much salt?
TWILLEY: Yep, they are. And that’s pretty much been the official position globally. The arguments goes, okay, we know if you eat more salt you have higher blood pressure, we know higher blood pressure is connected to heart disease, so basically everyone said, okay, we should lower salt. Because that would lower blood pressure, which is a good thing. And so you end up with a situation where the official recommendation is that ninety percent of us need to eat less sodium. That seems clear. Bad, but clear.
GRABER: But there has been a bunch of new research building up over the past decade, and now things are not so clear. This is what we meant by the salt wars. We spoke to a bunch of scientists to try to understand what’s going on and we read a lot of scientific papers. And this is what we’ve figured out. First of all, recently people started showing that low salt consumption is a problem. Low, not high. It’s bad to eat too little salt. That makes sense too: we know salt is an essential nutrient—we’ll die without it.
TWILLEY: And the fact is, every other essential nutrient works the same way: too little is bad, too much is bad, in the middle is just right. Why wouldn’t salt be like that too? So, like we say, there are some recent, massive studies that seem to show that salt is like that—that if you eat too little salt you also have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
GRABER: The reason is a little complicated, but when we don’t have enough sodium in our diets, these other hormone systems kick into action. And they can also cause cardiovascular disease.
TWILLEY: There’s now quite a few studies showing that in fact, if you get down to the level that the American Heart Association recommends as healthy—that’s fifteen hundred milligrams a day—that’s actually dangerous.
GRABER: And there’s something else. These studies also found that all over the world, in people with very different lifestyles and cuisines, 90 percent of us eat about the same amount of salt. Nearly all of us seem to eat between about 2600 milligrams and about 4900 milligrams. And—this is key—the research didn’t find any difference in cardiovascular disease in that range. If you ate 2600 milligrams, you had about the same risk of heart attack and stroke as if you ate about 4000 milligrams.
TWILLEY: So Cynthia, why is the CDC telling me I have to only eat twenty-three hundred milligrams?
GRABER: It’s back to that same argument about blood pressure and heart disease. All the studies that the CDC recommendations are based on do show that higher sodium consumption is related to higher blood pressure. And we also know that higher blood pressure is related to higher risk of heart attack and stroke. But here’s the problem. What none of the studies show, because this experiment is really hard to do, they don’t show that if people lower their salt intake, they would lower their risk for heart attacks. The logic is there, sure, but making sense is not evidence.
TWILLEY: So why don’t we just do those studies and settle the matter?
GRABER: Not that simple, sorry.
ANDREW MENTE: In order to definitively settle the debate, one would have to do a long term large randomized controlled trial, where we randomized half the people to say, a very low sodium diet, and half the people to our usual diet, and then follow these people up over time, say five to ten years, and assess differences for heart attacks and strokes and mortality. The problem is, with a study like that, it’s very very difficult to do. It’s very difficult to get people to consume a low sodium diet for a long period of time. So this is a challenge.
TWILLEY: Andrew Mente is an epidemiologist at McMaster University and he’s the author of big new study on salt consumption in the journal The Lancet. And his point is, no one had done the study we would need to do to know for sure if lowering salt will save lives, because it’s too hard. But just this year, one group of scientists has done that study. Their results are still in press, but here’s how they did it. They took a group of people, and for some of them, they reduced their salt consumption by about a third. Down to the low end of Andrew’s normal range—twenty three hundred milligrams, which is what the CDC recommends. And then they followed that group for a long time.
GRABER: They’ve been following them now for a couple of decades. Nancy Cook is one of the lead authors of this study, she’s at Harvard Medical School. And Nancy says that they’re seeing that the group on the lower sodium diet does have significantly lowered cardiovascular disease and death. A 25 percent reduction, which is a big deal.
TWILLEY: So this seems to complicate things. All these studies were showing that it didn’t matter whether you ate twenty six hundred milligrams of sodium a day or forty-nine hundred—that didn’t affect your chances of dying from heart disease. But Nancy’s new data is showing that if you lower your sodium consumption, that does reduce your chance of dying from heart disease. What gives?
GRABER: There are some caveats for all of these studies. Nancy’s research was done on people who already had high enough blood pressure that the doctors were keeping an eye on them. It wasn’t full blown high blood pressure, but it was a worry. So maybe it doesn’t apply to people who don’t have any problem with high blood pressure.
TWILLEY: And for that matter, Nancy has some concerns about Andrew’s study. The problem is, it’s really hard to know how much sodium people are consuming. You have to measure their urine, to see how much they excrete. And for her study, Nancy measured people’s urine multiple times a day, because your levels do go up and down. Andrew only measured once a day and estimated from that. But Andrew says his study is large enough that any error would get cancelled out.
GRABER: So where does all this leave people who want to know how much salt to eat? What does the science say? As you can tell, there’s no simple answer. But here’s what the two of us are taking away from this debate. One: everyone seems to agree that if you’re an outlier, if you have really high blood pressure or you eat a ton of salt in your regular diet, you should probably reduce it.
TWILLEY: But the good news is, most people aren’t outliers. Most of us seem to eat within a range that seems to keep us healthy. So if you don’t have high blood pressure, there’s no evidence yet that reducing your salt intake will lower your chance of dying of heart disease. The science is not clear that everyone could stand to reduce salt.
GRABER: Here’s what’s going on, though. Even though there’s no consensus that everybody across the U.S. should be reducing their salt intake, the government is now trying to get food manufacturers to put less salt in their processed foods. Because that’s where most of us get most of our salt.
TWILLEY: So if the evidence for reducing salt isn’t clear, should we be making that official government policy? Because we are.
GRABER: So we called our friend Jimmy Williams. He’s the host of DecodeDC—it’s a podcast devoted to making sense of the craziness that goes on inside the Beltway. If anyone can explain how government happens, it’s Jimmy.
TWILLEY: To help him figure this out, Jimmy called Robert Brackett. He’s a scientist and a former director at the FDA.
GRABER: So Jimmy, can you lay out for us what the FDA is doing right now with salt and where we are?
JIMMY WILLIAMS: Yeah, so basically, this is a voluntary guideline. This is not the big government telling you that you have to do this. But what it basically said is, we’re eating too much of sodium. And then they went through and they literally tested—well, they didn’t, the food industry tested what’s in their products, everything from pimento cheese to kimchi to vegetable juice to ham. You name it, they tested it and said, okay, this is the baseline of the amount of sodium that’s in there and we think that you need to get to this level by this certain date. Again, it’s all voluntary. Some of the reductions were four percent, some of the reductions were forty percent. And again, it all depended on what the product was. Now, the onus though, is not so much on the consumer, it’s actually on the food industry.
WILLIAMS: And let me also say this, you know, this is this process of what these guidelines are supposed to be, that’s currently out in the public sphere. So basically what happens is, when a government agency here in the United States proposes something, under federal law, they have to give it out, they have to put it out there to the American people and they have to say, okay, what do you think? Now, I’ve gotta break the news to you. I’m pretty sure that 99.99% of the American people do not come to the FDA website when they propose a regulation.
GRABER: I imagine that they don’t even know about it.
WILLIAMS: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. But you can do that. I mean, Cynthia, you can do it, Nicky, you can do it, our listeners can do it, anybody can go and do that. And it’s—right now, it is a proposed guideline and the FDA is taking in your thoughts and wishes, etc., etc., as well as the industry’s. So that includes the salt industry, the grocery manufacturers of America, I mean, anybody can come, and then the FDA will then take all that information, and they will decide what those salt levels should be and they’ll put out a final ruling, and they’ll publish that in what is called the federal register, which is a book that nobody reads except for people like me because I’m a nerd. But the point is that that’s what it will do, that’s how this process is going to work, and that is the process by which virtually every single regulation or rule from a federal agency, that’s how it happens here in Washington, DC.
TWILLEY: I don’t know, Jimmy, if you know this but I’m curious: why are they doing this? What are they hoping to achieve?
WILLIAMS: Well, I asked Professor Brackett that question. I said, you know, was this some nerd sitting at the FDA saying, hmm, you know, I feel a little bloated today, maybe I should eat less salt? Or was this a trade group that said, you know what, we’re tired of doing open heart surgeries, therefore we think Americans should consume less sodium and that will lead to less hypertension and therefore less cardiovascular diseases? And the answer is, we don’t know, we don’t know where this came from. And the answer to most government regulations and rules is that we don’t know, because we’ll never know. As open and transparent as the rule-making is, where it comes from is usually very secretive and beyond not transparent. So my gut tells me that the American Heart Association and other industry groups like the AHA came out and said, you know, Americans are consuming too much of this stuff.
GRABER: When you were talking to the scientists from the FDA, don’t—doesn’t the FDA know that the science is actually conflicted about just how much salt the general public should be eating?
WILLIAMS: Well, when the FDA proposed the rule they actually said the science is overwhelming, I mean, scientists across the world know that this is the right thing to do. They don’t say it’s undisputed, but they do say in fact that the overwhelming body of evidence is what they think. I think the answer is that’s why this is a voluntary guideline here. They can’t say conclusively, I mean, without a doubt, that what we’re doing salt-wise or sodium-wise is completely and terribly bad for us. And when the FDA or a government agency doesn’t know, that’s when you get voluntary guidelines as opposed to actual rules.
TWILLEY: How do you see this playing out? Do you think this is the start of sort of getting serious about salt or will it have no effect at all?
WILLIAMS: You know what, honestly, I’ve been in Washington for 24 years, I don’t think people are going to pay any attention to this whatsoever.
TWILLEY: A huge thanks to Jimmy for helping us figure out what the FDA is up to. DecodeDC is really the only way to make sense of what goes on in Washington. So, Cynthia, now we understand how the salt guidelines are developed at the FDA, but it still really begs the question, why? I hate to sound like a broken record here, but why is the FDA doing this? Especially when there are a lot of other things wrong with the American diet that are causing cardiovascular disease that the FDA could be focusing on instead.
NANCY COOK: Yeah. Well, sodium probably is one of the easiest things to fix. Ideally obviously our diet would be fruits and vegetables and a more healthy diet with whole grains, etc., but—and in doing that you’d also lower your sodium. But it would be very difficult to tell people to eliminate all processed foods and just eat fresh foods for example. Sodium seems to be something that would be easier to target
GRABER: Nancy Cook of Harvard Medical school is one of the scientists who did that really difficult study to tease out whether eating less salt can save lives.
TWILLEY: And, based on what she says and what Jimmy says, you know, it sounds to us like the FDA probably picked this battle because it’s an easy win. And it can’t do any harm, right?
GRABER: Not so fast. Here’s Andrew Mente again.
ANDREW MENTE: I think it’s going a bit overboard because the more focus you have on one thing, that’s less time to your focus on other things that are more important it could have a bigger impact. I think reducing sugar intake is much more important—far more important. Sugar and refined carbohydrates really I think are the problem with the food supply. Better to focus on things like that, focus on increasing physical activity, reducing smoking. Those are the key things. And it’s better to direct our resources to things that are that would have a bigger impact, rather than diverting resources to things that that might not be helpful, and may even backfire.
GRABER: So that’s Andrew’s take. And here’s what he means when he says this might backfire: We don’t know what will happen if manufacturers reduce their salt. When the government said that fat was bad, manufacturers cut fat but filled products with sugar. And that obviously didn’t work out well. So what if that happens with salt?
ALDERMAN: There may be something added to take the place of the sodium that they might really need anyway. The point is it’s an experiment. It’s an experiment that’s never been done before to ask industry to reduce the sodium content of foods. And we don’t know what the effect is going to be. I think that’s a leap that’s potentially harmful, but with no scientific justification.
GRABER: That’s Micky Alderman, emeritus professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. We heard from him at the beginning of the show. And he and Andrew Mente are in the same camp. Micky’s done multiple studies over years that show that most of us are fine with how much salt we’re eating.
TWILLEY: So Micky is arguing, why take the risk? This could make things worse, and we don’t know that it will them better, so why do it? But Nancy wasn’t worried about that.
COOK: I mean you don’t need to substitute anything else for the salt. You could just reduce the salt. It’s not necessary to have that much salt. And then you know people can always add salt if they want, if they really want to. I mean it’s not like they’re outlawing salt, they’re just reducing the salt in packaged foods and it will actually give people more choice because then they can choose to have lower sodium foods as well.
TWILLEY: That’s actually the real easy win. Most of us get lots of salt in processed foods, where we can’t really taste it. But if you cut down on processed foods, you can feel free to pretty much go crazy with salt at the table where you can taste it.
GRABER: The scientists we spoke with said even if you’re trying to keep your blood pressure down, it would be difficult to consume too much salt if you are just using it to season home-cooked food.
TWILLEY: Like we said, our takeaway is that, if you’re healthy, you can and should enjoy salt. And it turns out, it’s a good time to do that. Salt is going through a renaissance right now. It’s like we’ve come full circle and salt is valuable again.
GRABER: So after listening to the scientists duke it out, we celebrated by going to an entire store devoted to salt.
DON TYDEMAN: Well my name is Don Tydeman and you’re in the Salt Cellar and we’re in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We’re also located, we have another store up in Portland Maine. We kind of look at ourselves really as curators of salt because it comes from all over the world, where artisans will add different ingredients and different kind of flavors, minerals primarily.
GRABER: Don showed us pink Himalayan salt and black Hawaiian salt and grey sel gris from France.
TWILLEY: The colors comes from impurities—minerals or mud in the salt. And then Don showed us some Peruvian pink salt that was shaped into perfect tiny pyramids.
GRABER: What’s so fun about these crystals of salt is that when you sprinkle them on your food at the table, you get that little bit of crunch as you’re eating. And the salt lingers a little longer. It also affects the way you taste it.
TWILLEY: And then we tried a whole slew of other salts that had flavor infused in them—truffle salt and vanilla bean salt and smoked salts and sea licorice salt.
GRABER: And then we asked Don to show us his favorite.
TYDEMAN: Well, they’re like my children—I have all my favorites. You know, my favorite—I’m going to show you exactly what my favorite is now. This is a salt that we just got from Iceland and Iceland is an interesting place for salt because it’s a very cold country. But they also have the geothermal system so they’re able to go out into the Arctic Ocean bring back the water and then use the geothermal to evaporate. And they make a really amazing salt. So as a matter of fact we’re going there in four weeks to meet with them.
TWILLEY: On a salt hunting expedition?
TYDEMAN: On a hunting expedition there in the in the West. It’s called the Westfjords of Iceland which almost no one ever goes to. But this is the one that they use with their thyme, it’s an Arctic thyme. It’s a wild kind of…
TWILLEY: So freaking good. I have been putting it on everything ever since.
GRABER: I sprinkled truffle salt into olive oil for dipping bread at a recent dinner, and my guests went wild. I also sprinkled it on some roasted potatoes, and my friend’s six-year-old became obsessed. I had to tell him the story of hard it is to get truffles and how expensive they are to keep him from dumping out the whole container.
TWILLEY: These unusual shape crystals and the colored salts and the flavor-infused salts—I always thought they were sort of foodie nonsense. But ever since we visited Don, I’ve been having my own personal salt revolution. I mean, these fancy salts are super pretty and they can really add a whole new flavor dimension. And you know, once you give up the nagging sense that you’re killing yourself, it’s actually fun to focus on salt and really taste it
GRABER: Don’s store might sound a little extreme—though as you can tell, we had a great time there—but it turns out Don is not the most salt obsessed man in New England. At the start of the show, you heard the voice of Mark Sheehan.
SHEEHAN: So I’m Mark Sheehan, the chef co-owner of Loyal 9 in Cambridge. We refer to it as East Coast revival. You know the food is inspired by older New-England recipes, techniques, ingredients, you know, dishes, like composed plates that we’ve found.
GRABER: Mark’s menu is filled with names of dishes like pondemnast that I’d never heard of, some of them are hundreds of years old, but he makes them modern and really tasty. And Mark does something else New Englanders used to do. He makes his own salt.
SHEEHAN: My mother could actually tell you exactly how to make the sea salt because her stove was taken up with a pot for about a month and a half at one point and I drained their entire gas tank for their stove making sea salt. But the initial process was I would literally go to the beach, put on some big boots, you know, I was doing this sometimes too in like February, so it was extremely cold. So you know walk out into a tidal pool, fill up the bucket, try to get it back in my car without splashing too much, and then I’d strain it through, you know, multiple coffee filters. And then pretty much bring it up to just below a boil so you start to see like steam rise from it and then turn it down to the lowest possible setting you have, like if you have a warming setting on your oven or something, and let it hang out.
SHEEHAN: And then I’ll get to a point where I basically have this like, this almost like slush. You’ll have like a thin sheet of salt over the top, it almost looks like a frozen pond. Underneath you’ll have this slushy mess. And if I leave that on the stove too long I’ll scorch it. I’ll burn the bottom. So I’ll take that out of the pot at that point, gently so I don’t break up too much of the crystals, put it in like a pan and then I’ll go into like a very, very low oven, to, you know 150 degrees or something like that. And I’d let that go for about two or three days and then I’d just put it on the counter.
TWILLEY: It is very labor and energy intensive. He isn’t using this handmade salt for his pasta water, for sure. But for Mark, the flavor and really the whole idea of hyper local, homemade salt that he can sprinkle on top of his dishes—that makes it worthwhile.
SHEEHAN: There’s a very particular area that when I was kind of thinking about a lot of this food and developing it over the last few years was spent at this one beach and that sort of inspired the choice to go to that one beach to harvest salt water to make sea salt so that even just for me every time that a plate walks out the door like it has that place with it—just for me, like the guest doesn’t need to know it. But that I know that, you know, that one spot in Scituate, like, is on every single plate.
TWILLEY: Thanks again to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund—they support our coverage of biomedical research. And a huge thanks this episode to our friends at DecodeDC. DecodeDC comes out once a week, and it’s vital listening for understanding how politics affects everyday life in America. Recent episodes cover Native American voting rights, how the Trump family got so rich, and the link between the second amendment and slavery. Check it out at DecodeDC.com or iTunes; their salt episode features Jimmy’s full conversation with Bob Brackett as well as our lovely voices.
GRABER: Thanks also to Mark Kurlansky, his most recent book is Paper: Paging Through History.
TWILLEY: Micky Alderman, Nancy Cook, Sandra Jackson, Andrew Mente, and Gary Beauchamp helped us untangle the science behind salt.
GRABER: And finally thanks to Don Tydeman of The Salt Cellar and Mark Sheehan of Loyal 9 restaurant and cafe in Cambridge. Links to all of our guests and their work are on our website at gastropod.com. Thanks also to Ari Lebowitz for all her help.
TWILLEY: Where you can also sign up for our mailing list, and, if you give $9 a month or $5 per episode on Patreon, you can also get on our super special sustaining supporters email list, and we’ll send you a newsletter filled all the good stuff we couldn’t squeeze into today’s episode.
GRABER: We’re back in three weeks—a week longer than usual—with a special episode built around our first ever live show. Stay tuned, and thank you for listening!