Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Salt, happiness and Jocky Wilson

The magnificent Mr Puddlecote has posted with his usual perspicacity on the latest scare from the health Nazis (here). The topic is salt. It is a topic that has heated my urine for many years so I'd like to chip in. Since I've been quiet for a while it seems sensible to add another current topic, the Happiness Index, although, being the cunning old boy I am, I include it because it is directly relevant to salt.

First things first. Forget any notion that science can tell us a single thing about the consequences on our health of the ingestion of a given amount of salt. There is no universal maximum or minimum daily amount, there is no way of measuring the amount which is either needed or excessive for any individual, there is no accurate way of measuring how much is being ingested, there is no accurate way of measuring how much is being expelled from the body and there is no way of measuring whether a physical condition that might be caused by excessive salt consumption has in fact been caused by that. All they can ever do it seek to evaluate average needs - no doubt this (if done properly) is a difficult exercise and takes considerable knowledge and skill, but once it's been done it is of absolutely no use to anyone because there is no way of measuring whether any given person is average, below average or above average in their need for salt or in their susceptibility to harm from salt.

For decades it has been peddled that excessive salt consumption can cause high blood pressure and other medical nasties. That might or might not be true, I am sure I once came across a blog dedicated to exposing salt scares that challenged the hypothesis but I can't find it now. Let's assume it is true. We have to be very careful about exactly what we are assuming. Because we all need different amounts of salt in our diet for our bodies to perform efficiently, only consumption above the level we require can be excessive. That is not necessarily the same amount of salt all year round because we sweat more in summer (or in the presence of Joanna Lumley) and will secrete more salt than in winter (or in the presence of Harriet Harman), to maintain a working balance we must take more in summer (Lumley) than in winter (Harman) - unless some other factor interferes to require us to take more in winter. Some claim that we simply pass excessive salt when we dispose of used beverages and they might be correct but that doesn't mean that regular consumption of more than we need cannot have adverse consequences because harm could, in principle, result from that excess quantity being in the body prior to joining gallons of second-hand beer on the floor of the gentlemen's facility at the Dog and Duck.

And then, merely physical need tells only part of the story of human life. The human body is a machine. It takes in fuel and gives out waste products, just like a motor car. The difference between the human body and the motor car is that it is far more than a machine. It has feelings, senses and emotions that are essential parts of life and not things to be left to one side while we deal with the machine only. Food and drink are part of the feelings, senses and emotions aspect of life just as much as they are fuel for the machine. If old Auntie Enid likes a whole shaker of salt on her roast potatoes and would have a miserable Sunday lunch without it, how are we to assess the salt content in her diet? Excessive - because her body didn't need that much to function - or just enough because it gave her a happy time when otherwise she would have felt excluded from the family jollity going on around her?

When thinking of this subject my mind often goes to Jocky Wilson's lager. No, I'm not joking, the point is absolutely serious. Jocky Wilson was one of the great darts players from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. In order to play well he needed to be relaxed and, for him, that required lager. Quite a lot of lager. Once he reached a certain level of intoxication he was almost unbeatable, he had the necessary level of relaxation and concentration to allow him to play as well as anyone in the world. It wasn't something that could be measured. Some days it might be just a few pints, on other days it was measured in gallons but however much was required on the day he strove to continue his consumption in order to keep the level just right. As alcohol was burnt off it had to be replaced and failure to replace it would cause him to be unable to continue playing so well. Other players could perform well without a drink or with less drink but that was irrelevant he wasn't them and he wasn't playing for them. He needed a lot of booze in order to ply his trade at the highest imaginable level - did he drink too much? It depends what you mean by "too much". In each tournament he played his consumption was too little, the right amount or too much, depending on how it affected his throwing arm on the day. In the context of his long-term health it could well have been too much but any less and he would not have been World Champion twice and revered as one of the finest exponents the game has ever known. He is now entirely out of the public eye and is reputed to be living in poor circumstances at least in part because of his fondness for the sight of an empty barrel. One could isolate the booze and say he shouldn't have drunk so much, but that would ignore his achievements which would have been unobtainable without a liver quiverring quantity of drink.

When I was at primary school lunch sometimes included mashed swede. I absolutely hated the taste and I hate it still but the addition of enough salt would allow me to shovel it down and avoid the wrath of the scary dinner lady. Was that "excess" salt (and believe me, it took a lot of salt to mask the taste) bad for me or was it good for me because it allowed my little body to enjoy the benefits of mashed swede? Was the benefit of not being harried by a harridan outweighed by the taking of more salt than was good for my young blood pressure? There's no way of knowing, it cannot be measured.

Mr Puddlecote points out that the great Delia recommends using salt in the preparation of a number of ingredients of a Sunday Lunch. She is, of course, absolutely correct. Vegetables other than legumes, particularly root vegetables, boiled in unsalted water do not develop their best flavour because the temperature is not high enough whereas salted water boils at a higher temperature and that little difference in boiling point makes all the difference to flavour. We are all happier to have flavoursome food than bland food. If the trace of salt in vegetables prepared in this way has adverse health conseqeuences, how are they to be compared to the additional pleasure given by eating a tasty dinner rather than a less tasty dinner? It goes without saying that it cannot be measured. Even the amount of salt in vegetables prepared in that way cannot be measured because some will absorb more than others.

Our Prime Minister believes it wise to spend taxpayers' money on surveys of happiness. It goes without saying that it will be a complete waste of every penny involved for two reasons. Surveys can never measure anything accurately because they only give a snap-shot of opinion on the day the questions are asked. Not only can opinion change the next day but the questions have to be vague to avoid 90% of respondents saying either "not applicable" or "don't know". Secondly, and more importantly, you cannot measure happiness by reference to factors over which politicians have any control.

In relation to salt-consumption scares, try these two questions. "Are you happy that old Auntie Enid enjoyed her day out from her care home, The Coffin Dodgers' Lodge?" Of course the answer is yes. "Are you happy that old Auntie Enid had three times her maximum total daily allowance of salt on her roast potatoes?" The answer might well be "it doesn't matter at her age" but underlying that answer will be acknowledgment of the scare; the full answer would be "yes but she'll probably die before it kicks-in." How does that rate on the happiness meter? Ten out of ten for the first answer and maybe seven for the second. The second question is completely irrelevant to anything other than government statistics. All that matters is the first question because old Auntie Enid only has one life and if that involved an ounce of salt to make a meal just as she likes it she will smile her gummy grin until her final gasp. And the second question need never be asked.

What matters is the quality of life. It is an ephermeral thing, different for everyone at any given time and different for everyone from one moment to the next. Is a longer life more desireable than a second helping of pudding or a good shake of salt on Sunday roasties? That's up to the individual to decide. Time might prove their decision to be right or wrong or it might provide no answer. One thing that is certain is that their happiness will be increased by letting them decide for themselves.

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