The Salt Struggle

Salt Shaker

As more and more evidence that salt has ill effects on our bodies emerges, processed food companies are fighting harder than ever to keep their recipes intact.

We know that salt is linked to stroke and cardiovascular disease. The vast majority of salt in our diets comes from restaurant and processed foods, and folks like Michelle Obama and Mayor Bloomberg in New York are looking to limit the amount that food producers can include in their products.

Of course, makers of highly processed foods are staunchly opposed to reducing the sodium in their prepackaged edibles

Salt in Processed Foods

Their main argument is that without salt, processed food is bland and tasteless. Here are some stellar descriptions of salt-free processed foods from a New York Times article on the topic:

Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”

They went on to taste test a few of Kellogg’s most popular convenience foods, sans the salt.

The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

high salt snack
These Scrabble Cheez Its are marketed toward children and contain 10% of an adult daily recommendation for salt.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

What I’m getting from these descriptions is that without the salt to trick your palate, folks can really taste the chemicals and processing that creates these food products. The other point that a food producer made is that our taste for salt is cultivated – we expect saltier foods, because our mouths are used to tasting saltier foods.

It’s a tricky situation. Low income families often rely on these cheap, highly processed foods, and you don’t want rising food prices to mean that folks are going hungry. If you force these companies to drastically cut the salt, they say that it will mean higher food prices.

On the other hand, do we want the most affordable foods to also be the unhealthiest? It feels like a delicate balance between health and hunger in a lot of ways.

So what do you guys think? Should we be pushing these companies to cut the salt? Are their complaints about cost and flavor legit, or are they resisting because it’s easier to leave their recipes as-is?

To read more about the struggle over salt, including information on the food industry’s diversionary tactics to counter research about salt’s effects on health, check out the New York Times article.

Image Credits:
Salt Shaker. Creative Commons photo by kfergos
Junior Cheez Its. Creative Commons photo by

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8 thoughts on “The Salt Struggle”

  1. like everything else – all things in moderation! the amount of salt sprinkled on cookies or anything, really, doesn’t even COMPARE with the amount of sodium in prepackaged food. Salt is necessary for many things in your body – but naturally occurs in many fruits and veggies and a little extra sprinkled is not going to give you a heart attack.

    Will these companies need to change their recipes? YES and i am willing to bet the first big packaged food group that finds out how to make it tasty AND healthy has a lot of profit headed their way…

  2. The Romans used lead sugar (lead acetate) as a sweetener. Problem was, it’s poisonous and eventually killed them. We don’t use lead acetate as a sweetener anymore.

    Salt doesn’t kill as fast as lead, but too much makes you sick and will kill you just as dead in the long run.

    The health insurance companies love to talk about “moral hazard”… the idea that unless consumers have to pay good money for a doctor’s visit or a medication, they’ll be inclined to overindulge in the service. The same thing ought to apply to other areas of consumption, like food.

    Does it make sense to allow some companies to promote moral hazard by encouraging people to save a few bucks today on cheap food – only to overload the health system in the future by inducing obesity and heart attacks?

    When that happens, we ALL pay, via higher insurance rates.

    Personally, I’d be happy if EVERYONE avoided crappy processed foods and ate good, healthy, locally-grown food. But people do like the convenience. And as long as that’s the case, I don’t have a problem requiring companies to make, you know, actual food that tastes good.

    I’m sure someone could make a profit selling cardboard that’s been doused in salt and sugar. Does that make it food? Does that make it okay?

    1. I totally hear you, Jeremy.

      I was actually thinking a lot about this tonight at a focus group I went to in my 'hood about the new community garden. Folks talked a lot about food, and how healthy food isn't affordable. I got a little choked up hearing parents talk about being excited that they could include a salad with their kids' meals.

  3. None of the linked evidence seems hard to me. “Associated with” is not the same as “causes”.

    I’m also reading a book that is either giving me deep insight into the failings of public health policy or turning me into a lunatic. It is hard to tell because it sort of gives me cause to disagree with everything I see.

    1. Wow, what book is this?

      Good point about association and cause. Like Kate says above, I think moderation is probably key. The trouble is it's hard to enjoy certain things in moderation, like salt and sugar, unless you're preparing all of your meals from scratch at home. You know what I mean?

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