Vitalism Signs


By Rebecca Koch


There’s a classic “Star Trek” episode in which unsuspecting men are lured to their deaths by a shape-shifting “salt sucker.” But for the fact that I’ve never actually had to attach my tentacles to someone and leech the salt out of him to satisfy my need for a salt fix, I can relate. 



Salt is essential to life, after all, and we ourselves consist of salt in similar proportion to the earth. Historically, salt has been so valuable that economies have risen and fallen on its trade. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt; that’s where the word “salary” actually comes from. Animals will seek out salt and travel for miles to obtain it. Lewis and Clark spent a substantial amount of time, once they reached the end of their exploration on the Pacific coast, distilling salt for their journey back east.


Yet, salt has been much maligned by the medical profession. There are actually millions of poor souls attempting to exist on a nearly salt-free diet at the recommendation of their medical professionals. And, sadly (well, tragically in the view of the salt sucker), only about half of them are even likely to achieve the desired effect, since only about half the population has the sort of salt sensitivity that affects their blood pressure. Research has shown this, yet, a reduced salt diet is recommended for all patients with high blood pressure. And, even more tragically from the salt sucker perspective, new (though small sample-sized) research is suggesting that low-salt diets may indeed reduce blood pressure, but may actually make heart attacks far more likely. As you can imagine, I eagerly await further study.


Salt also stands in quite well as an emblem of the anti-vitalistic nature of industrialization. At one time, every culture on the planet had at least one way of making or extracting salt that was unique to its region. These salts were produced in a variety of ways from the sea, salt springs, salt mines or salt fields. And, the salts they made also contained a wide variety of minerals in addition to sodium and chlorine—many of which are also essential to vital health. But, with industrialization came the quest for reduction to the most basic elements—to “purity”—and salt went from existing as a panoply of rainbow-hued, mineral-rich varieties to a single, monotonous white compound produced by an ecosystem-, economy- and artisan-destroying mega-industry supplying a fraction of its “pure” product (actually, quite toxin-laden) for food, and the vast majority as a feedstock for the production of other chemicals.


I’m reminded of resveratrol, the compound that scientists isolated from red wine and pronounced as the source of red wine’s health benefits. It wasn’t long before they’d isolated resveratrol and had begun selling it as a dietary supplement. It apparently never occurs to those who think in such reductionistic terms that the optimal health benefit of red wine might actually derive from resveratrol only when contained within its native context—when suspended in all the other components of the wine and consumed with wonderful food eaten in the company of people you love. And so it turns out to be with salt.


So, the next time you consider a health recommendation that only considers a single variable, you should be sure to take it with a grain (or a healthy sprinkle) of salt.