Readers Ask, I Answer: Saltpeter

Question: “What is salt peter exactly?  And did the military ever put it into food to curb urges?”- Adam C. P.  Harlem

Answer:  Oh, this is going to be a fun one.

There is no proof that saltpeter has ever been added to food products for the expressed interest in suppressing arousal (military or otherwise).  The reason being is that if this were true, the population worldwide would be much less than it is today because inadvertently just about everyone has ingested saltpeter at some point in their lives if they’ve ever eaten a sandwich, brushed their teeth with sensitive teeth toothpaste or smoked a cigarette.

Saltpeter is simply a combination of salts, but mostly potassium nitrate and potassium nitrite.  Both have multiple uses, but most commonly they are associated with cured meats and some cheeses.  Potassium nitrate gives salami its characteristic pink color and  potassium nitrite is still a common ingredient in corned beef processing today.  There’s a wide variety of curing salts that can be used to cure meats now that work more consistently than saltpeter, but for centuries it did the job pretty well.  (And obviously we aren’t in a population crisis.)

In addition to all those cured meats, saltpeter is also commonly used as a fertilizer, as an additive to control how quickly cigarettes burn and as a preservative in dentifrices for sensitive teeth.  So even if you’re not a fan of reubens, if you’ve eaten a salad, smoked an after dinner cigarette or cleaned your delicate teeth you’ve probably ingested some of it fairly recently.  Much like death and taxes, saltpeter is hard to avoid, which is also of concern as ingesting nitrates has been casually linked to causing some forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Regardless of your lunchtime choices, the rumors of the military slipping the troops a little potassium nitrate on the sly has been around for decades.  Saltpeter in the industrial eggs!  In the coffee!  In everything!  However, none of these are true as it would go against the military’s policy on feeding the troops wholesome foods.  (In fact, the Marines’ official stance is that they must serve recruits foods that are  “wholesome, honestly presented and labeled per federal law”.)  Chances are, what is really keeping the flags at half mast is usually from being thousands of miles from home and bunking with hundreds of dudes with zero private time. Or perhaps, you know, being in the middle of a war zone.

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