A Grain of Salt: America’s Eating Habits Too Tasty

In this Agora, TNH Executive Editor Constantinos Scaros and anarchist/poet/historian Dan Georgakas square off of salt and America’s love affair for it.


Dino, I’d be interested in your reaction to how mass media reports on health issues. I am particularly appalled by the way news about the American diet is presented.

A new study or book that attacks current medical advice usually gets considerable coverage. People who do not want to change their eating habits are left believing science is on their side or that there is no scientific consensus. If they read the full study or book, they would find it mainly confirms existing science and only suggests moderate modifications.

The mass media sensationalist syndrome is evident in the extensive coverage given to a recent study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Among numerous conclusions, the study reported that not having enough salt in one’s diet was as bad as those having too much.

During a recent broadcast of the McLaughlin Group, a political roundtable, the host gleefully informed viewers that the New England Journal of Medicine had shown that people could use as much salt as they wanted.

He ridiculed ex-NYC Mayor Bloomberg for his efforts to curb the excessive use of salt in fast food outlets, saying Bloomberg had been misinformed.

But it is John McLaughlin who is misinformed. Critics of the Journal article have pointed out that the people in the study who had high death rates and low salt intake were often cancer patients and other terminally ill persons who were eating little of anything.

Not adjusting the findings to take out such data is a grave disservice to all Americans and life-threatening to the millions of Americans who have heart disease, high blood pressure, or kidney problems.

Excessive salt intake causes the body to retain water. One consequence is a gain in weight. More menacing is that excessive fluid in the lungs can lead to pneumonia, a major killer of people with heart disease. Excessive salt also raises blood pressure and strains the kidneys and the heart in various ways.

Medical authorities have determined that a healthy diet should average 1,500-2,500 mgs of salt a day. Most Americans consume 5,000+. Many Americans respond to such data by saying they just don’t have time to study the sodium content listed in packaged products.

Identifying low salt and no salt products can indeed be time-consuming, but spending more time reading labels in supermarkets is certainly preferable to spending more time in a hospital bed.

No-salt and low-salt foods are available in all major supermarkets. Careful shoppers will discover that salt in many common foods is 0-50 mgs in some brands and in the hundreds in others.

In taste tests, unsalted and low salt peanut butter, ketchup, pickles, mustard, and other tasty condiments are usually indistinguishable from their heavily-salted brethren.

Hundreds of studies of heart disease, the nation’s number one killer, have proven that excessive consumption of fat leads to clogged arteries. Moreover, x-ray photos of already clogged arteries have shown that clogging can be reduced by an extremely low fat diet.

Nonetheless, books such as The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet are granted lengthy coverage. In this case, the title is very misleading. The book largely endorses the existing scientific guidelines.

Detailed reporting on the fat and salt content in fast food outlets is rare. Americans might be surprised to learn that many products advertised as low-fat are loaded with salt as a taste substitute.

Less surprising is the strikingly high fat and sugar content in most of Starbucks’ coffee combos. Mass media would perform a great public service by reporting on such health monsters. That, of course, would not appeal to wishful thinkers or major advertisers.


Dan, on this issue, the Greeks have the rest of the world beat – and I don’t mean just by the now-universally-regarded “Mediterranean Diet.” I mean the Ancient Greeks, and their timeless saying: Pan Metron Ariston – Everything in Moderation. We are all going to die of something: whether heart disease or being hit by a bus.

So, on the one hand, we can’t sit around worrying about it. But on the other hand, we shouldn’t shrug our shoulders and not take care of our health, either.

My wife and I – who try to eat organic as much as possible, at least in terms of the groceries we bring home – had a houseguest a year or so ago, a classic junk food eater. “Don’t people who eat organic die, too?” he asked.

“Sure they do,” I replied, “but I think they have a better chance of living longer, and not spending the last 10 years of their lives in and out of the hospital.”

The really scary thing about poor eating habits in the United States is that the Coca Cola and Doritos of, say, 30 years ago were less harmful than the ones today.

Sure, children’s toys were colored with toxic lead paint back then, and contained metal parts that could take an eye out, but the morning bowl of Captain Crunch and the Three Musketeers chocolate bar at snack time were healthier then than they are today.

The point you raise about low-fat foods overcompensating with high-salt content to replace the taste is a prime example. It’s like those “health salads” at fast food chains – that contain nutritious vegetables, drizzled with poisonous salad dressing.
Simply put: foods that taste great, to some extent, will harm you if you consume too much of them.

One of my favorite desserts of all time is Pillsbury Turnovers (apple or cherry) which contain two horrible ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil. As if one wasn’t bad enough, two together are a toxic double whammy. That’s why I usually don’t have them more than twice a year.

Then there’s a masterpiece of a sandwich: prosciutto, hot capicolla, fresh mozzarella, sweet roasted peppers, and oil and vinegar, all on a freshly-baked loaf of sesame seed semolina bread. Talk about high salt content! I figure three or four of those a year can’t be all that bad.

My point is, if we delude ourselves into thinking we’re better off consuming the aspartame found in Diet Coke instead of the sugar in regular Coke, we are deluding ourselves. Let’s have the sugar – but less of it. Much less.

As for the media, who knows what drives them and in whose pocket they sit? After all, the biggest food conglomerates – which most people couldn’t even identify by name –are bigger than Walmart, General Motors, and Disney combined.

That rightwing pundits mock healthy eating is only because it is First Lady Michelle Obama’s pet project. If her message was to promote better cell phone reception, these same pundits would say: “leave reception alone. We like it when we can’t get signal!”

Thankfully, the great equalizer of our times is social media. Through Facebook, Twitter, and the like, the people – who are not beholden to special interests – can get the word out.

Grass-roots efforts have finally awakened the sleeping giant – the American people – who now rail against big business’ efforts to keep consumers in the dark about foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

At least we can rejoice in that not all news media is suspect. Even if we do say so ourselves, Dan, our publication takes its obligation to its readers seriously.

And you and I can write about whatever we please, because The National Herald is no one’s puppet on a string.
Whew! That was all quite a mouthful. I think I’ll go have some pretzels – but not too many.