Health

 

The Hard Sell on Salt

nytimes.com | 05/30/10

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Read More: food industry, processed foods, salt

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With salt under attack for its ill effects on the nation's health, the food giant 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," Mr. 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 experts 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 companies to do so.

But the industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of 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.

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