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Is Saltpeter to Kill Sex Drive a Myth?

Contrary to many people's assertions, saltpeter has no known impact on sex drive and has not been used in institutional or military mess halls.
Photo of saltpeter texture consist of many little balls

The power of sex on our collective imaginations means that people have concocted scores of myths about this fascinating topic. One that comes up time after time is the idea of using a substance to suppress sexual desire. (On the other hand, there are probably even more myths about aphrodisiacs, substances purported to enhance libido.) We recently received a question about a perennial fantasy: saltpeter in military chow.

Does Saltpeter Kill Sex Drive?

Q. As a baby boomer, I heard that servicemen in World War II, Korea and Vietnam were given saltpeter in their food as a deterrent for sexual urges. I wonder if that is true and if so, whether there is any connection to saltpeter and prostate problems. They seem to be so much more common nowadays.

A. The belief that saltpeter (potassium nitrate) will reduce sex drive is an urban legend. Rumors persist that authorities add this preservative to institutional food like the military, prisons, all-male boarding schools and summer camps. There is no evidence that this has ever been used as a strategy to dampen desire. Additionally, we have never seen any indication that it would be effective for that purpose.

How Is Saltpeter Used? 

Saltpeter is used in fireworks, but most of its common uses are exceptionally mundane. This compound has been used to cure meat. It is also found in fertilizer and toothpaste formulated for sensitive teeth. Tom’s of Maine Rapid Relief Sensitive Toothpaste, Sensodyne and prescription-only Colgate PreviDent 5000 all contain potassium nitrate. The Environmental Working Group ranks this as a safe toothpaste ingredient.

Saltpeter and the Prostate?

Although we searched, we could find no evidence that saltpeter has any effect on the prostate. Perhaps your perception that more men are suffering from prostate problems now is due in part to your group of friends and acquaintances. As a baby boomer, you have reached an age when many men experience such difficulties. In contrast, when you were a teen-ager, the men you knew were probably younger and hadn’t yet developed prostate problems. 

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Through many, many years I’ve listened to your sage and technical advice. Pls don’t think I’m counting, but your way of simplifying and enhancing Pharm knowledge has always charmed me. God bless you work.

I was in Navy training back in May – July 1999. Damn right salt-peter is added in the mess hall. Libido drops off the chart in military boot camp.

The saltpeter myth was an ironic remark made during WWI (as early as I can find) made by soldiers. Saltpeter is used in gunpowder. I promise you, most men in combat have psychological trouble getting erections.

I think people believe prostate problems occur more now because people are more open to discussing such things.

There used to be talk of Bromides in this context of lowering libido amongst men in institutional settings. Is that an urban myth too?

I’m an eye witness.. when in basic training… seen it added to the bins of soaking potatoes…

As I recall from basic training, we were too busy from wake up to lights out and too worn out from the constant physical activity. All available time left over was for resting and sleeping. There was no need for any libido lowering.

What about saltpeter being a carcinogen and promoting stomach cancer, etc?

My husband, who served in a submarine during the Korean War, has always said that the cook told him that he put saltpeter in the food. As it came time for liberty he would start cutting back. When they came back on board, after their, um, recreational excursions? He would start up again with the doses of saltpeter. Big Mike says it worked. Bunch of 19 year old kids with e.d.? Something was sure going on!

In Parris Island Recruit Depot for the Marine Corps in 1966 no one seemed to have had sexual desires and erections, and I have to wonder what they put in our food.

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