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Assault On Salt: Uruguay Bans Shakers In Restaurants And Schools

A typical Uruguayan asado, or barbecue, is made up of vast racks of prime cuts of beef, pork or chicken roasted on a grill next to — not on top of — a wood burning fire.

At parilla restaurants across the capitol Montevideo, the asados are pretty epic; the fatty cuts sizzle and then get slapped onto your plate, oozing with juice.

But if you want to grab a salt shaker and add a bit of extra salt to your meal these days in the Uruguayan capital, you can't.

"People are not allowed to put salt anymore on the table," says Lucia Soria, the owner of Jacinto restaurant in Montevideo. The city government made it illegal to have salt shakers out in restaurants, she says. No mayonnaise either. Or ketchup. In fact, pretty much anything with a lot of sodium is banned. If you want it, you have to ask for it.

Unlike in the U.S. – where New York City's last government was unable to pass a law limiting the size of soft drinks — other countries like Uruguay take a much more active role in what you can and can't eat, in the name of public health.

Soria says she doesn't like this interventionist approach.

"I think it's the wrong way to do it, I think we have to try to teach people not to eat salt in quantities that are not safe," she says.

Public health officials in Uruguay argue education can only do so much.

"The national consumption of sodium in Uruguay is about 9 grams per person, which is double what the World Health Organization recommends," says Pablo Anzalone, the director of public health for Montevideo.

According to the Uruguayan Ministry of Health, over 30 percent of the population suffers from hypertension. Uruguay also has the largest percentage of obese children in the region.

And it's not just about removing salt from the table.

The salt law also stipulates that there needs to be a warning on the menu about salt consumption, and restaurants need to have low-sodium alternatives available to customers. Nationally, bakers have also agreed to lower the sodium content in their products by 10 percent.

Anzalone says the government has a duty to protect its citizens from bad choices.

"People make decisions based on conditioning and the advertising that large corporations unleash. This is now a serious problem of public health," Anzalone says.

Uruguay's leftist leadership has a history of getting involved in what in many countries is viewed as a private issue. The new president, Tabaré Vázquez, is a former doctor who championed Uruguay's tough anti-smoking laws in his first term of office. Recently, he has announced a war on alcohol consumption.

Liber Bisciottano works in an exclusive asado restaurant in Montevideo. So far there are no figures that show if the law, which was enacted a few years ago, is actually making a difference. He says though there is circumstantial evidence that shows it's changing people's habits.

"I've worked in the restaurant business for 11 years and at the beginning it was only 20 percent of people who didn't salt their food and now it's about 20 percent who do," he says.

He says he supports the law except for one thing.

"It makes us have to work harder because we have to walk more — going back and forth to the kitchen to get salt," he says. "I think it's added an extra mile to my day."

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.