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Food industry defends use of salt

Campaign spreads positive message amid concerns

By Michael Moss
New York Times / May 30, 2010

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NEW YORK — With salt under attack for its ill effects on the nation’s health, the food company Cargill kicked off a campaign last November to spread its own message.

“Salt is a pretty amazing compound,’’ Alton Brown, a Food Network star, gushes in a Cargill video called Salt 101. “So make sure you have plenty of salt in your kitchen at all times.’’

The campaign by Cargill, which both produces and uses salt, promotes salt as “life enhancing’’ and suggests sprinkling it on foods as varied as chocolate cookies, fresh fruit, ice cream, and even coffee.

“You might be surprised,’’ Brown says, “by what foods are enhanced by its briny kiss.’’

By all appearances, this is a moment of reckoning for salt. High blood pressure is rising among adults and children. Government health specialists estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.

Since processed foods account for most of the salt in the American diet, national health officials, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Michelle Obama are urging food companies to greatly reduce their use of salt. Last month, the Institute of Medicine went further, urging the government to force food companies to do so.

But the industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using shifting tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show.

Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert’’ and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.

When health advocates first petitioned the federal government to regulate salt in 1978, food companies sponsored research aimed at casting doubt on the link between salt and hypertension. Two decades later, when federal officials tried to cut the salt in products labeled “healthy,’’ companies argued that foods already low in sugar and fat would not sell with less salt.

Now, the industry is blaming consumers for resisting efforts to reduce salt in all foods, pointing to, as Kellogg put it in a letter to a federal nutrition advisory committee, “the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt.’’

The federal committee is finishing up recommendations on nutrient issues including salt. While its work is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, records released to The New York Times show that the industry nominated a majority of its members and has presented the panel with its own research.

It includes two studies commissioned by ConAgra suggesting that the country could save billions of dollars more in health care and lost productivity costs by simply nudging Americans to eat a little less food, rather than less salty food.

Even as it was moving from one line of defense to another, the processed food industry’s own dependence on salt deepened, interviews with company scientists show. Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor.’’

Companies trying to reduce salt in their products say they can go only so far, so fast without compromising tastes consumers have come to relish or salt’s ability to preserve food.

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