New York Wins Butterball and Hostess: 6 Companies to Cut Salt

Victories for salt-reduction advocates pile up as the food industry continues to join forces with the New York City Health Department


Courtesy of the New York City Health Department

The New York City Health Department earned praise from health advocates across America this afternoon by announcing that an impressive new roster of companies has signed on to its National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), launched in October of 2009. The initiative's broader goal is to reduce consumption by 25 percent over five years.

"Salt is a problem for everybody across every stage of life," Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the Health Department's Cardiovascular Disease Program, told the Atlantic Food Channel. She pointed out that cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer in America, and that salt makes an enormous contribution. The problem, she said, is "immediate."

National sodium consumption has alarmed health advocates for years, and the announcement is a reflection of a broader move towards healthier marketing and standards.

Six major companies are uniting with the NSRI, including Hostess (committing to reduce salt in its bread products), the supermarket group Delhaize (pledging to cut sodium in 22 categories of packaged foods such as frozen pizza, cereal, and butter), and the seasonally appropriate Butterball, a manufacturer of many meat products but best known for turkey. These companies have set varying goals, with staggered timelines focusing on 2012 and 2014 as benchmarks. The NSRI is already working with food companies such as Subway, Heinz, Starbucks, Kraft, and Mars. The six new partners bring the number of participating food companies to 22. The NSRI conducted more than 100 meetings with industry, Angell told us, and worked with companies to figure out what would work best for them. The planned reductions focus on average reduction across product lines, with some remaining relatively salty as many are reformulated—usually, Angell believes, without any noticeable change for people eating the food.

Angell told us that she is happy with the initiative's progress. "It was an absolute success in that industry was a large part in setting these targets," she said. We've reached a point, she added, where "individual behavior change does not work." It's hard to educate individuals, and big change comes much more easily when the forces of industry, marketing, and government unite. A good comparison, she said, is the fight to eliminate trans fats.

The NSRI announcement comes as New York City launches a $370,000 advertising campaign against salt, with subway ads featuring salt-covered packaged food and, according to the New York Post, "a half-opened can of soup with a geyser of salt spewing from the top and forming a heap around the can." This public relations push is also reflected in New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's announced appearance with Angell tomorrow morning on The Doctors, a daytime medical talk show that has launched its own "Halt the Salt" public health campaign.


Courtesy of the New York City Health Department

National sodium consumption has alarmed health advocates for years, and the announcement is a reflection of a broader move toward healthier marketing and standards. Some companies have independently reduced sodium levels in their food, as Nestlé has done with packaged items such as Hot Pockets. Taco Bell has also been quietly lowering the sodium content of its menu items, with a goal to reduce salt levels by 23 percent.

Americans consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, according to an Institute of Medicine report released this fall—substantially higher than the maximum of 2,300 milligrams per day suggested by the 2005 Dietary Guidelines and the 1,500 milligrams per day recommended by the Institute of Medicine. The IOM report says that current intake levels are unsafe, and urges the federal government to cut consumption throughout the U.S. Today's announcement placed special emphasis on the health risks of sodium—elevated risks of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure, and exacerbated by our food-production system. Our sodium intake comes not from our salt shakers, which provide only 11 percent of the sodium in our diets, but from packaged foods: "Nearly 80 percent is added to foods before they are sold," the press release states.

The most insidious element is likely its invisibility. "We rely increasingly on processed foods," Angell said. "A lot of people think of the salt in their diets coming from the salt shakers. But it's already in the food."