This old legend might be the first military myth new recruits come across, and it might have been around for as long as saltpeter itself. Despite the combined efforts of science, health education, and common sense, somehow, the myth of the military adding saltpeter to the food or beverages in basic training still persists.
History with Using Nitrated Sodium Salts
Why would the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps do such a thing? The legend says they would add saltpeter to any or all of the food served in order to control the sexual urges of its young recruits.
Saltpeter has gone by a number of names, including “nitrated sodium salts” or simply “niter.” It is a historically critical component of the black powder used in early firearms. Chemically, it would either be called potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate. Either one is effective in the use of explosives.
What it’s not effective at is keeping a large group of 18-22 year-old military recruits from getting horny, yet the rumor of its use and efficacy has persisted for decades, maybe longer. And it’s not only the U.S. military; the rumor has popped up in basic training all over the world.
When asked about its history with using saltpeter in basic training chow halls, the U.S. Army‘s official response was that adding saltpeter to food would be poisoning new recruits and would thus be counterproductive to the Army’s needs.
It turns out that basic training is incredibly stressful and physically demanding. Under that kind of stress, the human body focuses its efforts on staying in survival mode, not on reproduction. Even the most virile of men and women tend to find arousal difficult under the levels of stress brought on by a Smokey the Bear-style campaign hat.
So Why is Saltpeter Always to Blame?
One kind of saltpeter actually is added to food, and it’s not just an antiquated practice of the past. Sodium Nitrate has been used to preserve and cure meats for more than 500 years, possibly longer. Salting meats draws water out of the meat and – more importantly – out of the botulism bacteria that could be infecting it.
These days, food manufacturers refer to the product as simply “nitrates” or “nitrites” and try to minimize their use in preserved foods. Studies have shown the preservation process, and the products used can increase risks of stomach cancer – so be careful with those charcuterie boards. It will not harm your sex drive, though.
The persistent myth of the saltpeter in food during training is likely the combination of a young man’s attempt to explain a sudden lack of interest in sexual urges with the only explanation he could readily see: the addition of a gunpowder ingredient into his unit’s food.
We, of course, can’t prove this event happened or that it was the definitive source of the rumor, but it makes about as much sense as any other rumor you hear in basic training.
As a former TI for the Air Force, 1961-63 I heard that from every Flight, Sir, do they put Saltpeter in our food? We tell them no, but they don’t believe us.
During a Marine Vietnam Veteran’s reunion at Parris Island, SC in 2010 our tour was treated to lunch at the Weapons Bn (Rifle Range) Mess Hall. We found the chow was so ‘salty’ that none of the vets—including our wives, and guests—could eat a bite of it! Boarding the bus to return to our hotel the main topic of conversation was “SALTPETER” and the obvious fact that recruits were still having it added to their chow—just as we suspected it was in the 1960’s when we were in boot camp. Myth? Perhaps. But try convincing an 18-year-old Marine recruit!