Would a salt ban be a public health boon or just big government preventing us from eating what we want?
Without salt, we probably wouldn’t have ham, cheese, or ketchup. Salmon lox, prosciutto, and miso would all be impossible without salt. Salt not only stops bacterial activity that would otherwise decompose fresh foods, but it also changes the flavor. Salt reduces the bitterness of espresso and tonic water. Salt enhances the acids in freshly picked tomatoes and the sweetness of buttery caramel ice cream.
And without added salt, there would be no processed foods.
The makers of processed foods invariably find that consumers enjoy high levels of salt. And so they add salt. A lot of salt. Boston Market’s Meat Loaf with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy, for example, contains 1,680 milligrams of salt. Maruchan Instant Lunch Chicken Vegetable Soup has 1,420 milligrams per cup, according to the CSPI’s list of the saltiest foods. This is the equivalent of putting about half a teaspoon worth of salt on your lunch. Other frozen pizzas, soups, and prepackaged foods contribute to an excessive, 3,400-milligram-a-day salt habit, well beyond the USDA’s recommended daily maximum of 2,300 milligrams.
There’s mounting evidence that we should reduce our over-consumption of salt. One 2009 study by the RAND Corporation found that we would save an estimated $18 billion annually by cutting salt intake to the recommended maximum. Another more recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine said, “The cardiovascular benefits of reduced salt intake are on par with the benefits of population-wide reductions in tobacco use, obesity, and cholesterol levels.” (Other scientists contend that we shouldn't aim for across-the-board cuts in salt consumption, but should instead target individuals who actually exhibit salt-related health problems, like high blood pressure.)
The processed food industry, meanwhile, continues to fight any effort to legislate salt and claims that Uncle Sam is after your home's seasoning. But take that argument with, er, a grain of salt. After all, the National Salt Reduction Initiative estimates that only about 11 percent of our daily sodium intake comes from salt we shake out ourselves. Much of the rest comes from processed foods, like crackers, which, without added salts, might taste—as the New York Times’Michael Moss put it—like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”
So how do we go about lowering the salt content of things we like salty, like potato chips or pickles? Very quietly—since it appears taste has a lot to do with our expectations and prejudices. In one Wall Street Journal report on Frito-Lay’s attempts to cut salt, a flavor scientist said we taste only about a fifth of the salt content currently on potato chips; the remaining salt is useless, swallowed before it dissolves on our tongue. Companies also found that fewer people bought “reduced salt” or “reduced-sodium” foods—even though they couldn’t taste the difference. In one case, Unilever tested consumer preference for two soup mixes: one was said to be low-sodium; the other was supposedly regular. Consumers preferred the regular, “saltier” version even though both soups contained exactly the same amount of salt. In other words, if the reduction in salt isn’t trumpeted as such, salt can probably be reduced by about 30 percent without eaters taking much notice.
Right now, food manufacturers are adding salt in excess for little apparent purpose. A federal mandate to take some of that salt out of processed foods would probably benefit most consumers. If the salt lobby is unwilling to comply, the federal government should counter with something it now considers unthinkable: simply advocating for eating less processed food altogether. Salt can make good food taste better—whether it’s on raw radishes or in homemade potato salad. But with great power comes great responsibility: Salt shouldn’t be used to make unhealthy fake foods taste like they're worth eating.