Most salt reduction advocates maintain that we are eating more salt now than ever before in history. They don't have any data to back up this claim, but they were never particularly fastidious about getting real evidence. However, the question of how much salt we ate in the past intrigued me, so I decided to seek out reliable evidence from other sources. It struck me that the military were always meticulous in maintaining and preserving their archives, so I decided to see if I could find out the daily salt rations provided to soldiers over the last 200 years. I hit pay dirt!!
During the War of 1812, the daily salt ration for the Continental army was 18g of salt/day (1).
The United States declared war on England on June 18, 1812 to protest the undue control of the British government over the lives of Americans. Captured US forces were first shipped up to Canada and thereafter crammed into ships for the long, cold voyage to England and the prison camps of Chatham and Portsmouth. Each man was given a daily ration of a pound and a half of coarse bread (8-10 g salt), some boney beef, 9 g of table salt and one or two turnips a week. American prisoners of war described their treatment by the British as "ungenerous, inhuman and unmerited oppression." (2)
The Mexican War ration was established in 1838 and also contained 18g of salt/day.
The Civil War rations enacted by Congress in 1860 and 1861, increased the variety of foods in the ration but maintained the 18g salt/day.
During the Spanish American War very few changes were made to army rations with the exception of a slight increase potatoes and a decrease in wheat flour and beans. Again, the salt ration was kept at 18g/day.
During World War I - the daily army reserve ration included a one-pound can of corned beef containing (10g salt), two 8-ounce tins of hard bread (4g salt), and 4½g of table salt for a combined total of 18½g salt. (3)
During World War II, the salt ration for American prisoners of war in Germany was 20g salt/day and the ration for Italian POWs interred in South Africa was likewise 20g salt/day. (4)
The bottom line is that we are now eating about half that amount of salt.
(1) Rations: The History of Rations, Conference Notes, Prepared by The Quartermaster School for the Quartermaster General, January 1949.
(2) James Adams, Dartmoor Prison, A Faithful Narrative of the Massacre of American Seamen, to Which is added a Sketch of the Treatment of Prisoners During the Late War by the British Government (Pittsburgh, S. Engles, 1816).
(3) “Special Rations for the Armed Forces, 1946-53", By Franz A. Koehler, QMC Historical Studies, Series II, No. 6, Historical Branch, Office of the Quartermaster General, Washington D.C. 1958.
(4) American Prisoners Of War In Germany, Prepared by Military Intelligence Service War Department, November 1945, Restricted Classification Removed - STALAG 17B (Air Force Non-Commissioned Officers).