Assemblyman Félix Ortiz has never been one to shy away from unpopular issues. Earlier this month, however, he went out on a dangerous limb. In an effort to save New York State from supposed health risks involving the common food ingredient known as salt, he brought into doubt his entire career.
Ortiz was the first in his family to move to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. After receiving his Master’s in Public Administration from NYU, he served in the army for two years. Voted into the New York State office in the fall of 1994, the Democrat went to great lengths working for all those in need. Latinos, sweatshop workers, immigrants, and more have benefited from Ortiz. Whether working on fighting childhood obesity, banning cell phone use while driving, or actually lowering the drinking age, Ortiz has always been involved in matters big and small.
There wasn’t a problem until just this month, when Ortiz proposed a health bill. Not just any bill, though, but a bill to ban all salt use in any NYC restaurant. For any reason. And with a $1,000 fine for each and every dish using salt, you can bet…wait, why are we even talking about this with as serious matter? The bill is absolutely bogus. Do I support lower salt intake? Yes. Do we consume too much sodium in our diets? Yes. Should restaurants have salt banned? That’s not even a possibility, and it’s a ridiculous point to even attempt to make.
It’s not as if Ortiz made the bill to help lessen the use of salt; no, he created the bill with the explicit intention of having all salt eliminated from every single dish. So what’s the big fuss over salt, you ask? To truly understand the presence of salt in our food, it’s important to recognize what place salt had in our history.
Salt has been used to preserve and add flavor to foods for almost as long as mankind has existed. Lake Natron, in Northern Tanzania, has always been an exemplary source for the important salt trade. Because of evaporation and heat fluctuation, pure salt is naturally left for harvest by the locals. Not just a food seasoning, years ago this commodity was so valuable, it was called “white gold” and actually used as currency in Africa and many parts of the world. Records showing salt use have been dated back thousands of years, while current use brings out flavor and helps preserve. Meats that would spoil quickly were made to last with a salt curing process. Cheeses were given flavor. Asian fish sauce was given its balanced, notorious stink, and virtually every other food benefited from salt throughout history. Despite being overused, salt is one of the most necessary ingredients in food today. Plus, humans wouldn’t be able to function without a balanced level of the stuff in our bodies.
While it’s true that many foods don’t naturally contain salt, the fact is that without it, foods are rendered fairly tasteless. Even sweets need salt for both chemical reactions and taste balance. You see, foods are meant to be cooked with salt. If you have a dish with little taste, chances are it just needs a dash of salt. This ingredient actually brings out the true flavors of foods, and no other element can do that.
Now, of course I realize Ortiz isn’t recommending we stop eating salt, so I’m taking this too far. Or am I? The Times Union out of Albany, NY, was where I first read the ridiculous details of the bill. It stated that while Ortiz himself admitted he’ll keep eating salty foods himself, he also stated that he was proposing the bill in the first place because of his father’s recent high blood pressure and heart attack. This salt ban would save the country billions in health costs. Really? He says this, remember, having done no research at all. Are we to trust this person? And please, anyone who suggests adding salt at the table as a way to make up for cooking with it has absolutely no clue about food, food chemistry, or the process of cooking.
What about people not being able to make healthy decisions, you ask? I would argue that while I’m quite aware of many cases where there’s a lack of proper nutrition information, I would also propose that anyone who has the money to dine in a NYC restaurant is probably aware of the general lack of good-for-you food. Good to eat, yes, because most know that restaurant food tastes so darn good because they put heaps more butter and cream in foods than we would ever use ourselves while cooking at home. If you dine out, you’re taking your chances. And there is progress being made in terms of government-led action against bad foods in NYC, if you’re for that. Consider the ban on all trans-fats, or the recent mandatory posting of nutrition facts. But banning salt in this way would not be the same at all; it would be chemically changing and ruining the science of cooking and flavoring. Now if you cook for yourself and don’t know the good from the bad, well, that’s another matter for another time.
Perhaps the most important part of the bill, however, is not the absurdity of the bill itself, but in fact what this all says about someone who would propose such a bill. Ortiz admits he did no research before proposing the bill. A person who makes such a bold statement without prior research is bad enough, but a politician? Even if the public often disagrees with what a politician is saying, we at least hope to respect how he or she came to that decision. For a New York State Assemblyman, though, going to the extreme of proposing a bill without any evidence or thought to back it up is simply unacceptable.
This isn’t an argument over the left or the right, or the right or the wrong. This comes down to an issue of a politician who made an extremely dumb mistake, and now it’s bringing him the notoriety I’d say he deserves. In the end, it’s not about salt. We know we should cut down. We know the bill was ridiculous. We know he went the tabloid route instead of the smart route.
If his goal was to simply bring about awareness, perhaps he should reconsider his abuse of public outcry and get his facts right. And perhaps we should reconsider his legitimacy as a politician.
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