by Marion Nestle
Jun 2 2010

Salt is under siege

In April, the Institute of Medicine published a study concluding that salt poses so serious a health hazard that the FDA should start regulating it as a food additive.

Last week, Mitchell Moss produced a lengthy piece in the New York Times, “The hard sell on salt,” detailing the food industry’s resistance to salt reduction:

The industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.

Now we have Judith Shulevitz’s piece in The New Republic, Is salt the new crack?”  She concludes:

We need to stop ingesting all these substances in ludicrous amounts…We need to be taught not just what’s in processed food, but how historically anomalous its manufacture and our consumption of it are. We need to understand the mechanisms that addict us to it. We need to relearn how to prepare real meals, and we need to start rethinking the social dynamics of that chore (it can’t just be up to wives and mothers anymore). It’s pretty hard to imagine the government conducting that education campaign, but, 20 years ago, it may have been just as hard to imagine the “truth campaign” that exposed the tobacco industry’s marketing techniques and the transformation of social norms that made it déclassé to smoke.

As I keep saying (see previous posts), the salt issue is one of personal choice.  If I want to eat less salt, I cannot eat processed foods or restaurant foods because that’s where 80% of the salt in American diets comes from.  As Moss explains, PepsiCo cannot make Cheetos without salt.  I can just say no to Cheetos, but eating out is a challenge.

No, salt is not the new crack, but I’m glad that changing food social norms is becoming part of the national conversation.

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  • Marion,

    Thanks for the info.

    I think it’s safe to say: “We shouldn’t wait around for government or industry to make changes.” Sadly, neither one is helping us with diet, health, and lifestyle issues.

    Fortunately, there are people like you who are speaking loud and clear to anyone who will listen.

    Please…keep speaking loud and clear!

    Ken Leebow

  • What I get from the NYT article (but what Moss doesn’t) is that the main use of salt is not to make things taste better, but to cover up the things that taste bad. There is no reason that food should taste like metal, straw, or wet dog if you are using good ingredients.

    One example given was that if salt is taken out of peanut butter, then manufacturers would put more sugar in to make it palatable. If you have to put something in it to make it palatable, then you aren’t making real peanut butter.

  • You can read a summary of the IOM report at

  • Sandy

    In Real Food: What to Eat and Why, Nina Planck says:

    “Typical commercial salt…is an industrial leftover. First the chemical industry removes the valuable trace elements and heats it to twelve hundred degrees Fahrenheit. We get what’s left: 100 per cent sodium chloride, plus industrial additives, including aluminum, anticaking agents to keep the salt pouring smoothly, and dextrose, which stains it purple. Salt is then bleached. Consuming pure sodium chloride strains the body, upsetting fluid balance and dehydrating cells.

    Unrefined sea salt is 82 to 84 percent sodium chloride, and the rest is other good stuff: calcium, magnesium (about 14 percent), and more than eighty trace elements including iodine, potassium, and selenium. These nutrients have vital functions, among them maintaining a healthy fluid balance and replenishing electrolytes lost in sweat. We need trace elements in tiny amounts, but a deficiency is serious.”

    There is more about salt, and lots more about what we should be eating. Everyone needs to read this book

  • Anthro

    I have a friend with a PhD in a biological specialty who, when I asked for some salt while cooking at his house, began to lecture me on the evils of salt and said he had none in the house. I then looked in his fridge which was stuffed full of prepared meats (hot dogs, liverwurst, baloney) and his freezer was stuffed with very high sodium TV dinners.

    I’m sure you can guess who ended up getting a loooong lecture and a referral to Ms. Nestle’s books.

  • oh how i love the reasonableness and sense in this post. never commented here before, but this one drew me out…funny which posts do what to different people..

  • MA

    Sandy, I agree with you completely. I love Nina Planck’s book, and I loan my copy to other people whenever they seem open to learning. I switched from regular “salt” to real salt after reading her book.

  • Salt is added to processed foods to achieve a (very salty) taste profile. In many situations adding salt is what makes cheap, un-tasty food palatable. Salt also is added for stability and preservation reasons. But the amount of salt added is clearly above and beyond what’s required for the safety and function of the food supply.

    Our fondness of salt is probably innate, and has served us well as a species–salt is an essential nutrient that was very rare until modern times, so having a biological cue to seek salt was a good thing. However, the preference for certain levels of saltiness is acquired and isn’t fixed. Repeated exposure to higher levels of salt habituates our taste receptors to seek saltier foods.
    Processed foods have gotten us used to really jigh saltiness.

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  • Joy

    Sandy: Nina Planck’s book is now on my reading list; thanks for mentioning it. We should compare reading lists.

    We’ve forgotten what real food tastes like. Salt is a flavor enhancer. It’s supposed to be used to enhance the flavor of food. What has happened is that many food products just taste like salt. I think the salt/sugar/fat trifecta is the new crack. But it’s worse because it’s legal; for sale on every street in the country.

    Dr David Kessler, in The End of Overeating, recommends no less than Food Rehab to retrain our habits and bodies to gain control over our artificially induced desires brought on by the food industry.

    We have to return to the root of food: preparing real food so that we know what we’re eating. The heart may be willing, but if the flesh is weak it’s a losing battle to the food industry. What causes our early death gives them their profit margin.

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