A Grain of Salt

New York Times editors could be a bit more skeptical.

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No doubt Americans consume too much salt, mainly in processed foods. No doubt the companies that make salt and use it in their products ought to try to use less. And no doubt the government should do more to discourage salt consumption. All this is the burden of a long expose in the Sunday New York Times. I believed all these lamentable things about salt before I read the Times story. Now I believe them somewhat less.

The piece begins strong, quoting a food celebrity in an absurd salt company video urging people to use salt in their coffee and "make sure you have plenty of salt in your kitchen at all times." Then comes the dubious statistic that "Government health experts" say "deep cuts" in salt use "could save 150,000 lives a year." This sent me Googling and it was the work of under a minute to find a column in the New York Times in February casting doubt on this very factoid. The column was by John Tierney, whose specialty is poo-pooing studies that suggest the need for more regulation. I don't necessarily trust him either. But still, the Sunday piece might at least have mentioned that this figure has been contested. And that "deep cuts" turns out to mean cutting in half, which is about as likely as "deep cuts" of that magnitude in the Federal budget.

Having established the peril, the Sunday piece then names the enemy: It's "the industry," which "is working overtly and behind the scenes...using a shifting set of tactics" that unnamed "industry insiders" call "delay and divert." In other words, the industry would rather not be more heavily regulated and is taking steps to try to prevent it. There is no suggestion that any of these steps are illegal, and no evidence that they are even unseemly, though that is the implication. (OMG shifting tactics! Will these salt peddlers stop at nothing?) And while I cannot prove that no salt industry employee has ever used the term "delay and divert," I'd be reassured by two examples, wouldn't you?

Among the nefarious industry tactics exposed by the New York Times:

* Sponsoring research "aimed at casting doubt on the link between salt and hypertension."

* Arguing "that foods already low in sugar and fat would not sell with less salt."

* Writing a letter to a federal nutrition advisory committee referring to "the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt," which the story characterizes as "blaming consumers for resisting efforts to reduce salt in all foods."

* Presenting this committee with "two studies" suggesting that urging Americans to eat a little less in general would be better for our health than zeroing in on salty foods. Is that obviously ridiculous? The piece treats it as such.

The author duly lets the industry feed him a few popular products--Cheez-It crackers, corn flakes, Campbell's chicken soup--with the salt removed, and in this part of the piece he is somewhat sympathetic to their challenge. Then he cites Michael Jacobson, whom he describes as "an M.I.T.-trained microbiologist...studying food additives" who "noticed the growing research" about problems with salt and asked the Food and Drug Administration to reclassify salt as a food additive that could be regulated. This makes Jacobsen sound like the head-in-the-clouds scientist in a science fiction movie who accidentally knocks over a vial of liquid in his lab and creates the Blob Who Ate Rush Limbaugh. In fact, Michael Jacobsen is the long-time head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the nation's leading food alarmist. Jacobsen and CSPI were the ones who promoted that 150,000-deaths stat. He does a lot of very good work, and in fact is something of a hero. Also, something of a zealot. (a common pairing of traits). And certainly a paranoid. To describe him as a "microbiologist...studying food additives" is like describing Dr. Kevorkian as "a medical researcher concerned with end-of-life issues."

Right-wing press critics will interpret this Times story as just another example of left-wing, anti-capitalist bias among the nation's liberal elite. I have no idea whether the author is a liberal or not, but I suspect the story is better explained as an example of a reporter with a good idea getting carried away. This is inevitable and in some ways a good thing. You want enthusiasm in your reporters. It's the editors who ought to add a few more grains of salt to the stew.

Further Reading

"The Hard Sell on Salt" by Michael Moss, New York Times, May 30, 2010

Salt: The Forgotten Killer, Center for Science in the Public Interest

More From Michael Kinsley

My Country, 'Tis of Me (June 2010 Atlantic)

Bribery and Blackmail, Pot and Kettle (6/1)

Clinton, Sestak, and 'His Girl Friday' (5/30)

Cut the Boomers a Break (5/28)

Show Me Your Documents (5/26)

An Immigration Meme (5/25)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.