Salt: Regulation Is Looking Better and Better


Today's New York Times piece by Michael Moss on the efforts of the food industry to fight attempts to lower sodium is the weekend's required reading. In fact, it's required reading for anyone who finds comparisons of some parts of the food industry with tobacco manufacturers extreme and knee-jerk liberal. Moss documents decades of obfuscation and subject-switching as part of a "delay and divert' strategy—a name that will enter the lexicon of every food activist.

The whole article repays reading. It's full of surprises. Alton Brown is paid by Cargill to promote the virtues of salt as part of its campaign to resist reducing it and ahead of any regulations. Kellogg knows exactly how a Cheez-It would taste without most of the salt: sticky, gluey, "not merely bland but medicinal," as Moss says. That companies let Moss taste low-salt products as a way of defending their need for salt I find fascinating and, I admit, deeply enviable. It sounded like a lot of fun.

I'm incapable of eating, or at least enjoying, most processed food precisely because of the salt levels, which I find intolerable. When Thomas Frieden, then the New York City health commissioner banning trans fats, was just starting his campaign to get industry to work in concert to reduce sodium levels, I wrote that I'd be happy if he desalinated the whole city. The Kellogg tasting shows how bad processed foods of all kinds could taste—if their current formulations were changed to reduce salt. Industry scientists were open with Moss about the necessity of salt in processed food:

Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called "warmed-over flavor," which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like "cardboard" or "damp dog hair."

One Campbell's vice-president talked about hairtrigger sensitivity among fans of its chicken-noodle soup, a condensed can of which has more sodium than an adult should consume in a whole day. Change it and they'll go away, he warns, and may never come back.

The answer, of course, isn't to make a bad, flavorless version of Cheez-Its or chicken-noodle soup(which I have fond memories of too—ah, how our little palates are taught to demand fantastically high levels of salt!). It's to improve the quality of the ingredients. As Moss points out, makers of pasta sauce can use better, riper tomatoes and fresher herbs and more of them to compensate for lack of salt. The color and texture and flavor of Cheez-Its are not amenable to such improvement. So companies should make better crackers and better soups. But they're not motivated to, and the public isn't demanding that they do.

Dr. Howard Moskowitz, a food scientist and consultant to major food manufacturers, said companies had not shown the same zeal in reducing salt as they had with sugars and fat. While low-calorie sweeteners opened a huge market of people eager to look better by losing weight, he said, salt is only a health concern, which does not have the same market potential.

"If all of a sudden people would demand lower salt because low salt makes them look younger, this problem would be solved overnight," he said.

Perhaps the most damning section of the article is how companies ignored good advice that could have saved them a lot of work now if they hadn't decided instead to divert and delay, putting off the day when regulations would be implemented:

Robert I-San Lin, who was then overseeing research and development at Frito-Lay, said in an interview that he had been caught between corporate and public interests.

"The public's concern over high sodium intake is justifiable," Dr. Lin wrote in a 1978 memo. A handwritten memo titled "Salt Strategy" shows that his staff worked on ways to reduce sodium, including adjusting the fat in potato chips as a way of lowering the need for salt and using a finer salt crystal.

Moss goes on to show how food processors tried to cast doubt on the link between salt and hypertension, and financed research on what calcium could do to mitigate the bad effects of salt, though Lin knew that would come to nothing. No matter—it diverted attention and delayed regulation.

We can look forward to more of the same as some, but too few, companies sign on to the New York City National Salt Reduction Initiative that began under Frieden's tenure, before he moved on to head the Centers for Disease Control. And we'll see more divert-and-delay as soda manufacturers throw their enormous resources behind fighting soda taxes, as Marion Nestle and Hank Cardello and I have written about on the Food Channel.

After Moss's thorough study of industry tactics with sodium, it will be hard to take seriously whatever new arguments against taxes soda makes bring up—and hard not to champion regulations that will bind food processors to produce sounder foods long after the political climate has moved away from anti-obesity initiatives and earnest promises of voluntary compliance.