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NYC says hold the salt

New York City's public health department last week released draft guidelines encouraging restaurants and makers of processed and packaged foods to gradually reduce the amount of salt in the foods they sell.

The new measures -- adherence is voluntary -- are aimed at helping consumers ingest less sodium, which in many people is a major contributor to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular woes. The city leaders hope their initiative, which has been endorsed by dozens of other health departments and organizations, will have nationwide impact.

New York officials acknowledge that cutting salt requires tinkering with recipes, in which salt plays an important and often delicate role, and that suggesting food makers do so is asking a lot. (To be sure, as David Kessler noted in his book The End of Overeating, those food makers have relied heavily on carefully constructed combinations of salt, fat and sugar to make us crave their wares.)

But people haven't proven to be very good at shaking their own salt habits. Many of us take in far more than the 1,500-to-2,300 milligrams of daily sodium that is deemed safe. (The lower number applies to folks who are most vulnerable to sodium's ill effects, which is about 70 percent of us.)

It's a challenging task, as an estimated 77 percent of our daily sodium (which can appear under a number of different names on food labels) comes from packaged and processed foods. And while table salt weighs in at 2,300 mg of sodium per teaspoon, it's hard to keep track of when we're dispensing it from a shaker.

The guidelines suggest that manufacturers achieve sodium reductions over the course of several years, so consumers won't notice the difference in taste.

As the folks who make Campbell's tomato soup can tell you, monkeying with salt in people's favorite foods is tricky business. That company has been committed to sodium reduction for years, but it has learned the hard way that people are sensitive to taste changes wrought by removing salt from foods. Consumers make their sensitivity apparent by choosing not to buy reduced-sodium versions.

Campbell's seems to finally have found a way to adjust the recipe for its iconic tomato soup so that it retains its familiar flavor while delivering lots less salt. But it was a long, and likely an expensive, journey.

So if we all agree that cutting the salt content of our favorite restaurant and packaged foods is a good goal -- and I believe it is -- then we consumers will have to make it worth food-makers' while by continuing to buy their stuff. No fair asking the companies to change and then turning up our noses at the products that result.

Here's another proposal: While the food companies work at reducing sodium in the next few years, why don't we consumers take that time to wean ourselves from salt? I know it can be done: I grew up with a shaker in my right hand (I remember adding salt to McDonald's hamburgers as a child!), and today I never, ever add salt to my food (except when baking, as the chemistry requires it).

(While we're at it, we might want to increase our potassium intake; recent research suggests it's the balance of the two minerals that's key to heart health.)

Have you tried to cut back on salt? How'd that go for you?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Next: One Big Happy Family: Watch this, then let's talk



High time to launch a counter-attack against the FSA...
Time to discredit their ill-designed salt reduction campaign and elevate the debate to a higher level, obesity.

My engagement with the ever present food-obesity debate? Twelve years ago, after viewing the Canadian rainbow and the US pyramid food guide, I committed myself to do my best to counteract the folly of the guides.
Food scientists decided to promote the very same products, grains, greens, with predictable results.

Granted, the over-consumption of salt-sodium will have ill effects, just like any other overuse like, grains, fruits, vegetables, water. The consequences have been devastating in terms of weight gain. Farmers feed food-guide products to livestock for fattening!

I do use a generous amount of salt, much like the East Asian population and we are slim and trim—on small portions.

Posted by: hart0007 | January 12, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Worth mentioning-- 4 days agog I turned 85, in great
For good measure I launched a new disease definition--Carbohydritis---

Posted by: hart0007 | January 12, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I've been trying to keep my salt at or below 1500 mg. a day since a friend was crippled by a stroke last year. Despite getting lots of exercise, my blood pressure readings were still high, and I really don't want to take blood pressure medicine. So the doctor suggested I eliminate salt. That's not easy. It means preparing all my own food from scratch, because sodium content in even "health food" is outrageous. But one immediate result which a lot of people might appreciate is that I permanently lost five pounds and they've stayed off. As it happens, I didn't especialy want to lose those five pounds, since it gets me below the weight that's a risk factor for osteoporosis, but life doesn't offer perfect solutions at my age, 67. And my blood pressure's now pretty good most of the time. I'm a vegetarian, so fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains were already my main diet, and a salt-free tomato sauce I get at my local health food store makes a great sauce for steamed veggies. They also have a "low salt salt" which has less than half the sodium, for the few things that need a sprinkle, like hard boiled eggs.

Posted by: carolnhero | January 12, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Is there any evidence that cutting salt intake has health benefits for people who don't have high blood pressure? Are there risks associated with getting too little salt, for example for people who exercise intensely and/or live in a hot climate? I think I will carry on ignoring this one, as I ignore most recommendations from the pseudo scientists of nutrition.

Posted by: bbabcoc1 | January 13, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

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