thechickandthepea

The Great Salt Debate

In Health rambles on May 30, 2010 at 12:11 pm

There was an article published by The New York Times yesterday that describes the efforts of the food industry to maintain high salt levels in foods.  Basically, the American public is realizing that they are consuming enormous amounts of salt everyday because it is packed into the processed foods that they buy.  Consequently, there is a demand for lower salt food and it has been suggested that the government mandate a reduction in salt contents, which the industry has inevitably resisted.

If you are not familiar with how much salt is in your everyday foods without you adding it in yourself, scroll down to the section in the article called “Case Study: The Cheeze-It.”  It is everywhere!

Salt sprinkled on top gives the tongue a quick buzz. More salt in the cheese adds crunch. Still more in the dough blocks the tang that develops during fermentation. In all, a generous cup of Cheez-Its delivers one-third of the daily amount of sodium recommended for most Americans.

While I strongly encourage healthy eating and am thrilled that people are learning more about what they are consuming, I personally do not think it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the American public isn’t gorging on salt.   Government intervention in the form of product regulation will not solve a systemic problem.

Read more after the jump…

There has to be some personal accountability.  If we, the consumers, choose lower salt options, such as organic products, then we are showing the industry that it is a priority.  If we walk blindly through a grocery store, then we are bound to choose unhealthy options.  Also, individuals can choose not to buy processed foods! Why should the government have to force companies to change a product that sells very well when lifestyle choices, to the extent that choices exist, start with the individual?

The reality, however, is that many people do not know what they are choosing and they lack education about what is healthy.  In addition, they may not have physical or financial access to healthy options.  There are many misnomers about what constitutes a healthy snack or meal.  That is when education becomes important, which, the last time I checked, actually was the government’s responsibility.  Education about the how to choose wisely is pivotal.  There is a correlation between lack of education, low income, and high obesity.

Fortunately, there are advocates stressing a similar points, like Michelle Obama.  If consumers start choosing the products that they recognize are healthy instead of walking blindly through the local grocery store and choosing the low-fat Cheeze-Itz or potato chips, the food manufacturers will have to follow in order to stay competitive.  In addition, education about how to cook from scratch and why it is beneficial is crucial; this helps take the mega companies who produce and promote super processed goods out of the picture.

Expanding organic and health food sections in grocery stores also helps- this is consumer driven.  In addition, opening more farmers markets and co-ops in lower income areas will only increase the access to healthy options, and the food at these places (from my personal experiences) often cost less than the food offered at the regular grocery store (ex. $1.99/lb apples at mega grocery store, ~$1.37/lb locally grown apples at co-op).  This is also consumer driven.  And let’s not forget about community gardens!  We need to find ways to reduce the cost of healthy food and make it accessible.  If a large market for healthy, inexpensive products and ingredients develops, one would think companies would want to have a chunk of this market and would have incentive to create products targeted to the market.

Can they be mass produced to help reduce costs? Is mass production the lone way to reduce costs?  These are questions that need to be tackled.

If the market for low-sodium food increases, then the food manufacturers will have to change to meet the demand and continue making money, which is the bottom line to the companies.  This change probably will not involve changing the Cheeze-Itz recipies. From the sound of it, nothing can be done to save Cheeze-Itz and cans of chicken soup from salt.  Instead, the companies would need to start from scratch with new products that are healthier and don’t just replace one additive with another.  Can the companies financially survive if they foods are not as processed? I don’t know.  Judging by the NY Times article, they don’t seem to think so but they also don’t seem willing to explore totally new ways of operating.  Innovation can certainly be costly… until something new and exciting is produced.

Many people do not like change, but people do like choices.  And once the American public knows more about what they are eating, they will need access to affordable options so they can make choices about the kinds of foods that they are consuming.  If people choose the stick with the salt-infused processed foods, at least it is a real choice.

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