Salt is hardest ingredient to shake
By Sarah Ellison, Wall Street Journal
Prompted by health advocates, the U.S. food industry has tried for years to cut back on its use of salt. An early effort was Mrs. Dash, a salt-free seasoning made of dried onion, garlic, lemon rind and spices. Introduced in 1982 by Alberto-Culver Co., it enjoyed brief success, but its popularity ebbed in the 1990s.
"The joke always was: 'It's pretty good, but would be better with just a pinch of salt,' " says Tony Grenis, who used to work in product development for Mrs. Dash.
Today, despite 20 years of warnings about the links between salt and high blood pressure, Americans, on average, eat about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, the equivalent of a teaspoon and a half of salt. That's up from 2,400 milligrams in the 1970s. An essential part of packaged and restaurant food, and deeply ingrained in the mass-production process, salt has become one of the hardest ingredients to drive out of the American diet.
The story behind how the food industry became addicted to salt is one of imperfect food science, stubborn consumer tastes and deft political lobbying.
Salt is inexpensive. It fixes problems in imperfect products and extends the shelf life of packaged food. It makes ingredients taste better, depressing bitterness and enhancing sweetness. Salt keeps bread from going stale. It keeps overcooked vegetables from turning gray. It keeps hot-dog meat from falling apart.
"It's like asking to come up with a replacement for water because we want something that's not quite so wet," says Clint Brooks, head of research and development at International Flavors & Fragrances, a company that develops flavors for the food industry.
There are signs salt is moving back to the top of the health agenda. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a frequent food-industry critic, filed a lawsuit last week against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, alleging government inaction on salt reduction. It wants the FDA to regulate salt more aggressively. Kathleen Quinn, an FDA spokeswoman, says the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.
The regulatory environment has become tougher as countries, such as Britain and France, adopt more stringent rules. That has kicked off a major lobbying effort in the United States. The prospect of a renewed anti-salt campaign is one of the food industry's greatest fears.
In one push last spring, the Salt Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based salt-producers' association, joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in suing the Department of Health and Human Services in federal court.
The suit alleged government scientists were advising Americans to eat less salt without enough evidence. The court dismissed the suit on technical grounds. Last month, the Salt Institute appealed the decision.
Until modern geology made mining easy, salt was a precious substance. Four different salts were used to mummify bodies in ancient Egypt. Roman soldiers received payments in salt, which they called a salarium, hence the modern term salary. Repealing the salt tax was one goal of the 1789 French Revolution. Napoleon restored the tax when he became emperor to pay for foreign wars, and it lasted until 1945.
The development of modern drilling techniques in the 20th century made salt an inexpensive commodity. With it, food makers developed the world's most efficient system for the mass production of packaged foods. Canning and food preservation became particularly dependent on salt.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, health experts started to sound warning bells. In 1982, the then-FDA commissioner, Arthur Hull Hayes, warned Americans they were eating too much. Beside him as a prop was an 11½-pound pyramid of salt.
Most medical experts agree eating too much salt is a primary cause of high blood pressure. Others, in turn, note the connection between high blood pressure and heart disease. There is still lingering controversy about how closely these two phenomena can be tied together, or, in other words, to what extent salt directly contributes to heart disease.
Despite the warnings, average per capita salt consumption in the United States has largely continued to rise, although it has stabilized recently.
The salt people eat is baked into food, not sprinkled on top at the table. Americans get only about½0th of their salt from the shaker. Three-quarters comes from processed and restaurant food, which also includes everyday foodstuffs like bread, cheese, ham, tomato products and milk, which contains salt naturally, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
"Most people aren't choosing to eat foods high in salt," says Jeffrey Cutler, director of clinical studies for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's division of epidemiology. "They are just picking up the foods that are available to them." The NHLBI is part of the government's National Institutes of Health.
It is possible to change people's taste for salt. Gary Beauchamp, a scientist who researches human taste perceptions, discovered in the 1980s that consumers' "bliss point," or the "just right" amount of salt, could be lowered if they followed a strict low-sodium diet. In such a test, which lasted five months, college students saw their average sodium consumption fall about 40 percent.
But a few years later, Beauchamp did another experiment showing how much easier it is to raise a person's desire for salt than lower it. He handed another set of college students salt shakers filled with 12 grams of salt, roughly twice what an American adult consumes in a day, and told them to liberally season sandwiches, meat, bread and entrees like pasta and salads. After a month, the participants' "bliss point" rose faster than it had fallen during the sodium-lowering experiment.
"It's easier for people to eat more salt than less," says Beauchamp. He is now director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a group funded by industry grants and the NIH that studies human sensory perception.
The food industry experienced this firsthand. Following government warnings, it churned out a range of low-sodium goods. In 1990, 14 percent of food product launches were low in sodium, according to Marketing Intelligence Services, a research firm that tracks product launches. But the products rarely sold well as food companies struggled to find workable salt substitutes.
Morton International, a division of Rohm & Haas Co., one of the nation's best-known salt producers, had been trying to come up with low-sodium salt since 1970. That year, the company introduced Morton Salt Substitute, followed three years later by Morton Lite Salt, both of which replaced some sodium chloride with potassium chloride. But potassium chloride can be bitter, and many consumers rejected it, choosing taste over the perceived health benefits.
"We knew we weren't coming up with perfect solutions," says Linda Kragt, technical services manager at Morton, "but the demand was very great to put something on the market." These reduced-sodium products are now used mostly in nursing homes and hospitals where a low-sodium diet is a medical necessity.
Some big food companies pulled low-sodium products from the market. Kraft Foods scrapped "Healthy Favorites" low-sodium cheese in 1994, two years after its launch. General Mills offered a reduced-sodium version of its Hamburger Helper seasoning with 25 percent less sodium than its regular version. Despite a costly advertising campaign, the company decided the product was a dud after 12 weeks and stopped production shortly afterward.
Last year, Campbell Soup Co. discontinued its lowest-salt "Healthy Request" soup. Sales of Campbell's other low-sodium "Healthy Request" products are below where they were in 1995. Most of these products failed, according to company representatives, because they simply didn't taste good. George Dowdy, vice president of research and development for Campbell's soups and sauces, says consumers wanted a low-sodium soup with more salt. He says after removing salt, it's hard to stop vegetables turning mushy and losing some color.
The industry seemed to give up as new food fads, including low-fat and low-carbohydrate products, crowded out salt concerns. Last year, the food industry introduced 541 low-sodium products, half the number launched in 1991, when the low-sodium craze peaked at less than 4 percent of all product launches. By contrast, low-carb launches made up nearly 20 percent of the 2004 total.
Taste isn't the only reason food companies have struggled to cut back the salt. The need to preserve products for a long time so they can be shipped to the far reaches of the country is another.
In the United Kingdom last year, Kraft cut 30 percent of the salt from Lunchables snack meals, which contain Oscar Mayer meat and Kraft cheese. The British government has been pressuring companies to reduce sodium. Such a reformulation wasn't introduced in the United States because it would have shaved the product's shelf life to 70 days from 90. Kraft says it needs the extra time to ship inventory to supermarkets.
Instead, in the United States, Kraft cut salt out of the "base cake" of the cracker included in its ham-and-cheese Lunchables. To compensate for any loss in taste, Kraft sprinkled a smaller amount of salt on top. The shelf life stayed constant, and the salt content was cut by 9 percent, but the same product in the United Kingdom has nearly one-third less sodium.
Kraft says until recently it had focused on other health concerns. "We have been looking at total fat and saturated fat and total calories first in that product," says Nancy Daigler, a Kraft spokeswoman.
Now, Kraft says it's turning its attention to sodium, but instead of making deep cuts in a few products, it plans to make small reductions across a broad range.
Last year, the food industry was especially concerned about the U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the body charged with developing a new set of food rules. The panel was considering cutting the recommended daily salt intake to 1,500 milligrams from the 2,400-milligram level previously advocated by the FDA.
In a September presentation to the dietary-guidelines committee, the food industry's main lobby group, Grocery Manufacturers of America, warned that food scientists still hadn't come up with salt replacements accepted by the public and probably wouldn't be able to do so in the near future.
Alison Kretser, director of scientific and nutrition policy at the GMA, told the committee: "The result (of the industry's salt-reduction effort) was a relatively small number of products with significant reductions but with no discernible impact on overall sodium consumption by the population as a whole."
The food industry also argued that salt is so ingrained in the mass-production process that consumers would starve themselves of other nutrients if they cut their salt intake to the levels suggested by some health practitioners.
In January, the committee rejected the most stringent option it had considered in favor of a 2,300 milli-gram-a-day cap, virtually unchanged from the previous level. "You could practically hear the industry exhale," says Gilbert Leveille, the retired head of food technology at Cargill Inc., a major salt producer.
Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the committee, explained the decision in an interview: "Because of the extraordinarily low number of low-salt processed foods in the food supply, the committee worried that no one would be able to follow the lower guideline."