Salt is centuries old and is one of the most basic ingredients in food, but in the last few decades it’s been increasingly scrutinized.
According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the American Heart Association, eating too much salt can lead to increased blood pressure and serious cardiovascular health concerns. Although the public didn’t respond quickly to this information, changes in diet have slowly materialized, especially in the past decade.
As a result of public initiatives like New York Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) and a more general change in public opinion, food companies have been motivated to quietly remove excess salt from their products.
Although public initiatives can have a large-scale effect on public health, the sweeping effort to reduce salt consumption still faces a few hurdles. Companies and chefs struggle to remove salt without removing flavor, while public leaders and health advocates struggle to convince consumers that their decisions matter.
Behind it all, however, exists an argument against the effectiveness of salt reduction. In the past few years, several studies have been released that question the importance and safety of salt reduction — a message that flies in the face of generally accepted wisdom and confuses consumers.
Common wisdom says eating too much salt can lead to health risks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends 2,300 mg per day, while the American Medical Association recommends 1500 mg.
These numbers are a cause for concern because according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American consumes 3,300 mg each day.
In a response to these figures, the FDA is working on a program to reduce sodium in manufactured foods.
Mayor Bloomberg personally joined in the effort to reduce public salt intake as well, sponsoring the National Salt Reduction Initiative. Putting pressure on companies to remove salt from prepared foods and using public service announcements, Bloomberg aims to encourage New York residents to eat less salt.
“Prior to our National Salt Reduction Initiative, there was no comprehensive approach to lowering sodium in foods, and many questioned whether companies would step up to meet a voluntary pledge,” said Mayor Bloomberg in a press release from the NSRI. “These companies have demonstrated their commitment to removing excess sodium from their products and to working with public health authorities toward a shared goal — helping their customers lead longer, healthier lives.”
The initiative has gained support from a variety of companies, and 21 corporations and restaurants — from Butterball to Target — reached the NSRI’s 2012 salt reduction goals.
“We are very proud of the significant reductions we’ve made to the sodium levels of our menu offerings, which we have been able to do without sacrificing flavor or quality,” said Lanette Kovachi, Senior Dietitian for the SUBWAY® brand.
Support for salt reduction from companies like Subway and Starbucks does not materialize out of thin air. Salt reduction in prepared foods is possible, in large part, because of technical innovation.
Maintaining the flavor and texture of food is an important factor for companies aiming to tackle salt reduction, and a number of alternatives to added salt have sprung up. Some of the most common salt reduction methods can be demonstrated by:
- Au bon pain reduced salt in its prepared sandwiches by using fresh meat and produce which don’t require salt as a preservative.
- A popular alternative to salt is potassium chloride, a compound that has similar texture and taste qualities to sodium chloride.
- Sea salt is becoming more common as a substitute for table salt, because the compound naturally contains less sodium.
- Tate & Lyle’s Soda-Lo is a salt microsphere that uses a different crystal structure to cover food more evenly, using less salt in the process.
- Alberger flake salt uses a similar theory, boasting a low-density pyramid structure that allows for even and thorough flavor while using smaller amounts of salt.
- Other flavor enhancers, like Nikken’s Komi powder or monosodium glutamate are also commonly used alternatives to salt.
All of these alternatives have allowed major corporations to embrace public efforts like the NSRI and change their manufacturing techniques.
Amid these sweeping changes, however, a question has been plaguing public efforts to reduce salt intake: does salt consumption really matter? Or, more specifically, can reduced sodium intake really decrease the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure?
For years, the Salt Institute, an industry group representing the interests of the salt production industry, argued there wasn’t enough evidence to support public recommendations for decreased salt consumption.
Morton Satin, the Vice President of Science and Research at the Salt Institute, and former Director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Global Agribusiness Program, believes that the public is being misled by the across-the-board push for salt reduction.
“You believe that most people get blood pressure reduction from salt reduction, when in fact that’s not the case,” Satin says. “It’s been published and it’s in every dietary guideline. It’s mentioned in the small print. It’s all there: 30 percent benefit, 20 percent are harmed, and the remaining 50 percent are neutral. But that’s not the impression that you have. The impression that you have is that everybody benefits.”
Although the Salt Institute can hardly be considered a neutral source of this information, more recent studies from national institutions have spurred continued debate on the subject.
- According to a 2012 review of dozens of studies from the last 40 years, published by a group of researchers at The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the link between salt intake and high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke is weak.
- Another study, published in 2011 by the Harvard School of Medicine, linked insulin resistance to low-salt diets.
- The most recent addition to the growing body of information supporting moderate salt consumption is a study published by the Institute of Medicine in May. Although the institute still supports public initiatives for reduced salt intake, the study raises questions about potential harm from eating less than 2,300 mg a day.
The Future of Salt
As consumers and regulators work to limit salt intake, science will continue investigating the link between salt and public health. As information proliferates Americans and the companies that produce their foods will be faced with the challenge of determining how best to incorporate salt into a healthy diet.