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