Pass (on) the Salt

by Anne Bennett on June 2, 2010

First I want to state unequivocally that I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. So did James Earl Ray. I also believe the following: Princess Diana was not murdered by the Royal Family. Aliens did not land at Roswell, New Mexico, and there was no subsequent coverup by the US Military of their crashed vehicle or their bodies, there being no vehicle or bodies to cover up.

In short, I am not a conspiracy theorist. I need to say this because I’m now going to tell you about a front page story in last Sunday’s New York Times that details how the food industry, under attack from health officials to reduce their use of salt in processed foods, has for years used subterfuge to avoid making any substantial changes in their salty products.

salt-articleinline1Here’s where the conspiracy bit comes into play. The Times article states that the food industry is “working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years.” It calls their strategy “delay and divert”. One often-used diversionary tactic is to blame consumers: Kellogg wrote the federal nutrition advisory committee that they can’t reduce the sodium in their foods because of “the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt.”

A synonym for intractable is stubborn. In other words, Kellogg says they can’t reduce the salt content of their processed foods because consumers simply won’t tolerate the taste and texture of reduced-sodium versions.

Case in point: Cheez-Its. When Kellogg attempted to greatly reduce the sodium in these popular snack crackers, their bright yellow color faded, they became sticky when chewed and they stuck to the teeth. Their taste also became medicinal. It turns out that one of the uses of salt is to mask bitter flavors that are a side-effect of processed food production. Without salt, many processed foods take on a “warmed-over flavor” that resembles “damp dog hair.”

Salt also acts in tandem with sugar and fat to create an eating sensation that is nearly impossible to resist. Take away the salt and you’ve got a completely different and almost always objectionable taste configuration.

Here’s the bottom line for the food industry: since salt masks the off-flavors of cheaply produced processed food, making cuts in salt would require using more expensive, better-tasting ingredients and thus drive up food costs. Higher costs would hurt sales. And there you have it in a salty nutshell.

And if that isn’t enough to make you shed some salty tears, here’s another kicker: for years the industry has overstated the amount of salt the government says is safe to consume. The standard figure for adults has been about one teaspoon of salt, or 2,300 milligrams per day. Health experts now say that’s too high. Most Americans, including children, middle-aged adults, blacks and anyone with hypertension, should consume less than 1,500 milligrams per day.

I don’t know where you fit in that profile, but I’m squarely in the middle, which means that for years I’ve been fooling myself about my own salt consumption. This is a bummer of inestimable proportions. I have a threshold for these ever-changing guidelines; if they ever come up with reasons why I can’t drink beer, it will have been reached.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

amy June 2, 2010 at 5:39 am

Anne, I just read Marion Nestle’s book, “The Politics of Food” Loads of interesting info about subjects such as this..
Amy

Nicole June 4, 2010 at 8:18 am

Check out http://www.foodpolitics.com. I haven’t had a chance to read much on the site yet. I just stumbled on it the other day, and I’m thinking it might be pretty good.

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