Michael Jacobson is the director of the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit consumer advocacy group that serves as an almost lone crusader against the might of the food industry lobbies in Washington DC. At a weekend nutrition conference at Tufts University, Dr. Jacobson presented, as he has been doing for decades, the case against excess salt consumption.
He began his presentation with a proclamation that salt is the single deadliest ingredient in our food supply – worse than all the additives, pesticides, and trans fats combined.
After reviewing the regulatory history of salt over the past 50 years, it was quite obvious that government efforts not only failed in curbing sodium consumption, it has actually gone up. (If you are wondering why, look no further than the average American pantry. Each year, more processed food takes the place of unprocessed cooking ingredients. Salt is used in many of these processed items as both a preservative and a flavor enhancer.)
The FDA held a public hearing on salt in 2007, one of many such activities that ultimately ended up yielding no tangible results.
But there is some hope. The UK, as well as New York City are mounting campaigns calling for the voluntary reduction of salt in processed foods in an incremental fashion over the course of the next 10 years.
And some manufacturers are playing game. In some product categories, there is a two to threefold variation in sodium levels. This means that salt can be removed without harming the product’s flavor. Additional measures include using potassium chloride (instead of sodium chloride), using herbs and spices to round off the flavor, and setting a different size of salt crystals to create a saltier taste perception while actually using less salt.
At the end of the day, Dr. Jacobson believes sodium reduction needs to be handled both through regulation and by industry efforts.
He notes the good work done by Campbell’s, who took a bet reducing sodium by 30% in their best selling tomato soup product line, which accounts for 15% of their sales. Campbell’s is heavily touting the new formulation in its current marketing campaigns. Other food processors opted to silently reduce sodium levels, as in their minds consumers associate less salt with bland product flavor.
On the regulatory front, CSPI would like to see the FDA partially revoke salt’s GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status if the amount per serving in certain food categories is above a certain threshold. And the USDA should also be involved, as 20% of the salt in foods comes from USDA regulated products such as hot dogs and chickens injected with a salt water “broth” of up to 200mg per serving.
Dr. Jacobson ended his talk on an optimistic note, hoping that 2010 will be the year of the salt. He left the podium with one last stat – a 100mg daily reduction in sodium consumption by every American will reduce health care costs in the US by $18 billion!
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