Ban salt, save lives. That's the message coming from New York City, where last month a bill was proposed to outlaw the use of salt in the city's restaurants. If the ban comes into place, restaurants could be fined up to $1,000 (Dh3,670) for using the white stuff anywhere in their cooking. This may sound like an unrealistic bit of soapbox politics from members of the New York State Assembly - with Mayor Michael Bloomberg coming out against it, it's unlikely to be taken up permanently - but it's not without precedent. In 2006, the city banned the use of transfats in restaurants, a sweeping gesture that seemed extremely bold at the time but is now becoming an accepted measure across the world. The health risks the measure seeks to combat are very real, too. Excess salt consumption, it is claimed, can cause high blood pressure, obesity, strokes and heart disease, so intervening to reduce people's everyday consumption does make some sense. But is salt really that bad for you? And wouldn't a restaurant salt ban risk ringing the death knell for an industry already struggling to cope with recession?
While to some the measure sounds like tiresome meddling, there's no denying that excess salt does you no good. The main hazard of overconsumption is that it encourages the body to retain far more fluid. Keeping liquids within the body heightens your blood pressure and means that there's more fluid coursing through the heart and the brain. This causes extra pressure both on the arteries and on the heart, which has to pump all those liquid-engorged blood cells around the system, leading to a far higher risk of strokes and heart attacks. The kidneys help remove excess salt from the body, of course, but their working can be impaired if the doses of sodium they have to deal with are too great, while their ability to flush the stuff out grows weaker as the body ages. While poor diet in other areas, lack of exercise and age are also contributors to strokes and heart disease, eating too much salt is very often a significant factor.
How much is too much, though? The most commonly recommended maximum for adults is six grams a day - about a teaspoonful. That sounds like a manageable amount to limit yourself to when shaking salt over your food. Bear in mind, however, that most of the white stuff we consume enters our food long before it reaches our kitchens. In Britain, where ready meals and processed foods are a cornerstone of many people's diets, 75 per cent of the salt people eat comes from processed foods - and with an average salt intake of 8.6 grams, around half the population consume more than the maximum recommended dose. Meanwhile, in New York, an estimated 1.5 million people suffer from high blood pressure.
The ways in which salt stealthily insinuates itself into our food are various and ingenious. Confirming the concerns of New York's assembly, fast food is especially high in the stuff, often combined with fat and sugar to create a junkish flavour explosion that is nigh-on addictive. But there's also plenty of salt in many other products, even ones that are often considered wholesome. Bread is often packed with refined salt while cheese, tomato ketchup, stock cubes, cured meats and fish and tinned vegetables are also heavily laden with it. Public taste is the usual reason given by manufacturers for the high salt levels in these products, but a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet suggested that many people were unable to tell the difference between heavily and lightly salted bread. It seems that high salt levels are not only unhealthy, they aren't even necessary to create a good flavour.
So the evidence suggests we often need to rein in our salt use - but banning it in restaurants? What killjoy dreamed up such a dastardly idea? Excess salt may be a killer, but eating without it can be downright miserable. Sea salt - so tangy, so crunchy - is an absolute joy without which any steak is naked, while grilling fish in a salt crust (it keeps the juices in) that you later flick off is one of my personal favourite simple recipes. It's certainly possible that my love of the stuff is the result of being force-fed it by my parents in the unenlightened 1980s, and that I could be trained out of craving it with a little grit and patience. All the same, it's tiresome and somewhat patronising to be told that the enjoyment of any guilty pleasure is the result of culinary false consciousness. A fresh, crisp radish dipped in artery-hardening butter and a tiny dab of blood pressure-boosting sea salt is simply more delicious than an unadorned one. End of.
If I ended up having a stroke, however, I'd probably lose much of my enthusiasm, so cutting down is clearly a good idea. Some claim that you can lessen the risks by choosing a particular type of salt, though no one's position seems watertight. Sea salt producers make much of the valuable trace minerals present in their less refined product, but you would surely need to eat unhealthily large quantities of the stuff to get any benefit. Table salt manufacturers, meanwhile, point out that sea salt has much lower iodine levels, while their already iodine-rich products often have more added to them for health's sake. That may be true, but iodine deficiency (once common in places like the Alps, where iodine levels in the soil are low) is now very rare in the developed world, while the amounts needed to avoid deficiency are minuscule. A sounder way to keep your salt levels healthy is to make sure you're getting plenty of potassium. Sodium and potassium work in tandem in the kidneys to strip the blood of excess liquid, but if you have too much sodium in your body, this process works less efficiently. Upping your potassium levels - through eating fresh fruit and vegetables, or such foods as yoghurt or tuna - redresses the balance and helps combat water retention.
Another possible answer is to make sure that the smaller amount of salt you use really satisfies you by making sure it's of the best quality. On taste grounds alone, sea salt is definitely preferable to everything but hard-to-find, unrefined rock salts. Once you've tried the more interesting texture and lighter, more distinctive flavour of top products like English Maldon sea salt or French fleur de sel, it's hard to accept the hard, uniform and faintly bitter little pellets of table salt, while its more interesting flavour may make you less prone to bombing your food with it.
As for New York's prospective restaurant salt ban, it seems that the major culprits for the worldwide salt overdose are food manufacturers, but they are unfortunately beyond the reach of the state legislature. While people need to be aware of salt's risks, no one likes to be pestered or patronised. Taking away chefs' power to season their food to the right level is enough to make anybody want to stay at home, downing pint after pint of brine.