Are you eating too much salt? That depends who you ask. If you ask Health Canada, the answer would most likely be “yes.” According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, Canadian adults consume more than double the recommended amount of sodium. If you ask the salt industry however, you might get a different answer.
So, who do we trust? Who really has our best interests in mind? The answer might seem obvious. The government is supposed to protect us, and businesses are out to maximize profits. If a product faces heavy public scrutiny the company must outdo itself to persuade the public in its favour. If that product happens to be salt, then you would think it wouldn’t be a hard sell. Everyone loves salt!
Table salt, as you may know, is a molecule made up of a sodium atom and a chlorine atom. One teaspoon of salt has approximately 2,300 mg of sodium. According to Health Canada, a diet high in sodium is associated with hypertension (high blood pressure). Hypertension increases your risk for heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke. The amount we should aim to consume in one day is about 1,500 mg, or approximately the amount of sodium found in three slices of Pizza Hut’s pepperoni lover’s pizza. The association between sodium and hypertension, and the fact that Canadians are consuming too much salt, has made sodium reduction a priority amongst organizations like the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Dietitians of Canada, and Health Canada.
Here’s the dilemma: most North Americans are currently consuming too much sodium, leading to hypertension and its resulting health complications. In an attempt to improve the health of its citizens, government agencies are promoting low sodium diets. The major contributor to sodium in diets is processed foods. As part of the promotion of low sodium diets, governments are urging companies to reduce the sodium in the food they produce. For example, Health Canada is encouraging industry to reduce Canadian’s sodium intake by almost 50 per cent by 2016.
Unlike fat and sugar, salt doesn’t currently have an acceptable replacement that everyone can consume safely. Therefore if producers reduce the amount of sodium in food products the product will taste less salty and, in most cases, less flavourful and appealing. How will food producers deal with this dilemma?
While there are substitutes, which contain magnesium or potassium instead of sodium, they are not recommended for people on certain kinds of medication.
Some companies, like Campbells, have worked to find ways to offer low sodium options, while still producing a product consumers would buy, however other companies have taken a different approach.
Cargill, a major salt producer, decided to start a salt promotion campaign. Cargill’s interactive website, salt101.com, which stars Food Network star Alton Brown, takes visitors through the kitchen where you learn never to shake your salt from a shaker, but to take a three finger generous pinch, like chefs do. Visitors also get to choose foods such as ice cream, chocolate coated cookies and fruit, learning how much more delicious they are when sprinkled with a pinch of salt. The website is very attractive and with their use of a television personality who is recognized and respected by Food Network viewers, a sense of authority is easily presented.
The Salt 101 campaign is extremely professional. If I didn’t know better, I would most likely start consuming more salt as a result. I’m not going to lie, I am kind of curious as to how chocolate cookies taste with sea salt sprinkled on top (Brown made it look so good). This website is part of the salt industry’s effort to undermine government campaigns designed to reduce consumption of sodium. It’s an easy task to promote salt, because salt tastes good and doesn’t make you fat. I can imagine that trying to promote pure lard would be a bit more difficult.
Cargill has the advantage that they can promote the fact that salt is needed for life, because it is. Without sodium we would die, and the only way we can get sodium is by consuming it in our diets. However, the minimum requirement for sodium is about 200 mg/day, which is what is found in less than a tenth of a teaspoon of salt. Cargill and other food producing companies who rely on salt for their products are facing insurmountable challenges in the face of the new government guidelines. You can’t blame these companies for spending big bucks on defending their livelihoods.
However, promoting the use of salt in coffee may be going too far (as anyone who’s accidentally tried can tell you). As a consumer, when being faced with contradicting messages it’s always best to be well informed. When your health is the issue, take advice from multinational corporations with a grain of salt.
Clara Lysecki is a fourth year Human Nutritional Sciences student.