Take This Post With A Grain Of Salt

shutterstock_19554931.jpgTuesday's New York Times contained a column (and accompanying blog post) that questioned the merits of New York City's efforts to convince restaurant chains and the food industry to halve the amount of salt in their products. Lowering processed foods' sodium content is not a new idea, but the idea always runs smack into debates among many parties who each have their own priorities. Cutting salt intake lowers blood pressure on average, which is why government agencies such as the USDA advocate keeping salt intake within a specific range. But that relationship is based on a measure of a population, and what works for an individual person doesn't always mesh with what's best for the greater good. More interesting than rehashing that debate, at least to me, is the concept of "stealth" reduction-- that is, gradually lowering the amount of salt in foods so that people won't notice. I attended a March 30 workshop about developing strategies to reduce sodium intake, which was run by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, where I was surprised to see the extent to which some large food companies are reducing sodium in their products without explicitly telling consumers what is replacing the sodium. The most striking example came from Burger King, which plans to roll out new low-sodium chicken tenders on May 1. The new tenders will have a 36% reduction in sodium, according to Stephanie Rohm Quirantes, the nutrition and health manager for Burger King's North America division, who announced the new product at the workshop. That percentage is much higher than the typical "stealth" drop. She said that the company was using "sodium replacers" in the new tenders but didn't disclose what those replacers might be. She also said that Burger King isn't planning to directly advertise this change to consumers. Last November, the company got some press when it announced that it is cutting sodium in its kids' meals. I'll be keeping an eye on Burger King's ingredients page (pdf file) and nutrition page (pdf) over the next few weeks to see whether the info for tenders registers any changes. What do you think? To what extent should companies be required to disclose ingredients of prepared and processed foods? Do you think a wholesale reduction in foods' sodium content is a good idea? UPDATE 4/13: updated broken link to nutrition brochure. Image: Shutterstock

Author: Carmen Drahl

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7 Comments

  1. I have libertarian sympathies (like Tierney) so I tend to react negatively to government attempts to nudge the public. Nevertheless, it does look like high-salt diets aren’t so great for you — whatever the government can do to influence the public’s choices are probably worth it. I suspect that industry attempts (like the BK low! sodium! tenders) are merely cosmetic efforts to forestall serious regulatory matters. Honestly, if they wanted to reduce salt intake for their customers — why not the fries?

    There’s something of a missing factor here: some people like salt! I don’t — it’s rare that you’ll ever see me reaching for the salt shaker, ever. I suspect that those people who like salt will actually miss it in their tenders and will either eat more (unlikely, in the case of the tenders) or will shift their preferences to something else more salty.

    P.S. What kind of regulatory doom does this spell for salt-and-vinegar potato chips?

  2. You’re absolutely right about people taking their business elsewhere- these sorts of efforts need to be done industry-wide to work.

    Regarding the salt shaker, research has shown that if you take out x amount of salt, even if a person wants to add salt with the salt shaker to taste, they don’t add back the full amount taken out.

  3. Companies must still list sodium replacers in the ingredients list, though, no? Are they managing to skirt naming them entirely, or is it a matter of picking out the replacer from a typical list of processed food ingredients?

    The one thing about NaCl is that at least we DO know its health risks. Not knowing what sodium replacers are, I’m skeptical that they don’t have their own set of health hazards.

  4. I think you’re right, Jyllian- they have to disclose what all the ingredients are. But they don’t necessarily have to say what each thing is for, or (and here’s another sticky wicket) exactly how much of it is in there. Because of the labeling regulations BK has to quantify its sodium, but ingredient lists are just listed in descending order from the highest quantity to the lowest.

  5. I’m a big fan of having the companies list everything. That way, consumers can make their own choice–go with the high-salt chicken tenders from , say, McDonald’s, stick with the “What the heck is this?” chicken tenders from Burger King, or just go home and cook their own breaded chicken bits to which they can add however much salt they want.

    In my family, we like our salt (we’re all from the mid-Atlantic, but I don’t want to make a generalization, although if you go into any diner in Maryland, whooo, watch out for the salt!). I’ve moved to wasabi as my condiment of choice, but that’s just it–choice. I choose how much salt (or wasabi) I want to put on what I’m eating. It doesn’t really matter, in my view, what the manufacturers do–the consumer purchases and eats these things with the ability to determine what’s in them, if it’s healthy, and if they want to put it in their body. If they don’t want the salt (or anything else), they won’t buy. Easy. If the manufacturer isn’t selling stuff, they’ll adapt their products to be marketable.

    But putting sodium replacers in there that don’t have to be quantified so consumers think that it’s better for them because of the lowered salt content? Well, that’s just shady.

  6. I thought the term “sodium replacers” a little odd, so here is an article from a food development website. MgSO4 — hmph; what can’t it do?:

    http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/The-science-of-salt-reduction-in-food

    The first option is the use of salt substitutes, most notably potassium chloride (KCl). However, blends of half-half KCl-NaCl have metallic, bitter tastes with markedly less ‘saltiness’. Replacement blends of the salts in the range 25 to 40 per cent potassium appear best to avoid noticeable impacts of the flavour.

    Higher concentrations of KCl can be used, but masking agents need to be added to cover the adverse taste.

    Commercial low-sodium salt replacers are currently available, like Lo salt, Saxa So-low and Morton Lite Salt. Another example is Pansalt, a salt replacer that is reported to have almost half of the sodium replaced with KCl, magnesium sulphate and the amino acid L-lysine hydrochloride. This last ingredient is said to enhance the saltiness of the and mask the tastes from potassium and magnesium.

  7. Thanks for the article. Here’s another, from the LA Times, that doesn’t go into the level of molecular detail that yours does but contributes an interesting bit of history. Apparently, LiCl was used as a substitute back in the 1940’s, but that didn’t work out very well. I’m also guessing that when the reporter in this article writes that “there are no salt enhancers on the market” she means that there isn’t any product that, on its own, is specifically marketed for that purpose. If the lysine mechanism is in fact verified, you could buy L-lysine hydrochloride at CVS if you’re so inclined.
    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/27/health/hew-saltscience27

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