America's Assault on Salt

Shaking out sodium looks like the next trans fat for food processors.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Sources of Sodium Table

Despite some shaky science connecting salt or sodium with hypertension and heart disease, all signs point to sodium reduction being one of the biggest changes coming in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And while home cooks and foodservice will be admonished, food processors are likely to shoulder most of the blame next year.

Americans love sodium, but most of us consume considerably more than we should. We ingest 3,436mg of the stuff per day — almost 50 percent more than the 2,300mg recommendation in the current (2005) USDA Dietary Guidelines for healthy adults. To put that in perspective, one teaspoon of salt weighs 5g and contains about 2,300mg of sodium.

An estimated 29 percent of us have hypertension (high blood pressure) and another 28 percent have pre-hypertension, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). And although there is no definitive proof that sodium actually causes heart disease, there is a perceived link. The National Academy of Science (NAS) recommends a sodium intake level of at least 500mg, but less than 2,300mg a day. Health advocates at AHA and the Centers for Disease Control agree the 2010 Dietary Guidelines should be changed to lower the daily sodium limit to 1,500mg.

Although we use the terms salt and sodium interchangeably, they are different. Sodium combines with chloride to make table salt. Both sodium and chloride are essential nutrients, helping to regulate fluids and keep our muscles (including the heart) moving. Both are classified as electrolytes, which essentially means they conduct electricity in the body, transmitting signals to muscles and nerves, a key factor in making the nervous system work. Sodium, in combination with calcium, magnesium and potassium helps regulate the body’s metabolism and an improper balance of sodium in the body can be fatal.

Likewise, salt in processed foods does much more than provide the salty taste we all crave; it serves as a preservative, inhibits the growth of bacteria, regulates fermentation, enhances color, texture and mouthfeel in foods and helps counter bitter tastes.

Adding a few grains of salt can bring out a food’s natural flavor without contributing a salty taste. Foods with higher levels of sodium do not necessarily taste salty, in fact some baked goods may contain more sodium than some frozen entrees. Foods with surface sodium typically have a saltier taste than foods with incorporated sodium, and foods with less moisture, such as potato chips, generally require more salt than french fries.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, sued in 2005 to get salt off the FDA's list of safe food ingredients. The group says restaurant and processed foods deliver more than three-quarters of the salt people consume, and it has demonized salt as the “single most harmful ingredient in our food supply,” terming it “toxic.”

More notable is the challenge from Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, the force behind the nationwide effort to ban trans fats, and nutrition policy advisor to President Barack Obama. He told attendees at the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Healthy Flavors he may suggest a regulation mirroring a new law in the UK to mandate a dramatic salt reduction (20 percent) in all packaged and processed foods. (He’s also suggesting a national tax of up to 18 percent on sodas and candy.) “We need economic levers to keep the public from making bad food choices,” he says.

Forging ahead to reduce sodium

Food manufacturers and ingredient suppliers are, and have been, searching for new ways to reduce the amount of sodium added to products while still preserving the salty taste consumers crave.

“We’ve been looking at sodium reduction for over 30 years,” says Linda Kragt, technical services manager at Chicago-based Morton Salt, provider of salt for 160 years. “Initial work in the 1960s, mixtures of salt and potassium chloride, was done at Michigan State University,” she says. “As a result of this research, we launched Morton Lite Salt mixture [half sodium chloride and half potassium chloride] for the retail market in the early 1970s.”

Even though Morton saw potential in the food processing industry, “The food industry didn’t become interested in salt reduction until sodium labeling became part of nutritional labeling, which occurred in the 1980s,” she explains. “We did a lot of lower-sodium application work, particularly in the meat and poultry industries because they needed the salt for its functional effects. We did applications in many categories such as baking, snacks, cheese, and fresh pickles.”

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