At an investor meeting last week, PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, announced it is developing and testing a designer salt that will cut sodium levels up to 25 percent in some of its most popular snack food products. The Wall Street Journal reported on the salt product, and, according to that newspaper, "Small groups of U.S. and U.K. consumers couldn't tell the difference when comparing the two salts on chips last summer."
Is this truly an effort to make consumers healthier, or just a way to satisfy ever-increasing government calls for lower sodium in processed foods, particularly those popular with kids? Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative has already called for lower amounts of sodium in school meals, and earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration called for food manufacturers and chain restaurants to cut the salt in the food they produce and serve.
Sacramento, Calif., Nutrition Examiner Anne Hart asks whether this designer salt will actually reduce the sodium kids ingest at school, particularly when they purchase salty snacks from vending machines.
Designer salt is one of the latest and most intricate efforts to calm concerns among government officials about the possible health effects of the widespread use of sodium in processed foods. You've heard it repeatedly that eating too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease. Your children are probably snacking on more salty items than you.
High blood pressure is even up in kids, prompting doctors to recommend treating children for hypertension as well as for cholesterol problems. Can salt change children's health if it's reduced in school lunches locally and nationally? Most Americans consume about twice their recommended limit daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The editorial staff of Fooducate comes up with this evaluation of the plan:
At first read, you have to hand it to PepsiCo for going through all this effort to make their snacks and beverages healthier for us. The company has a record of gradually improving the health profile of its chips over the years, for example by switching from trans-fatty oils to safflower oil.
But at the same time, consumption and sales are constantly rising. People are getting fatter.
Frito-Lay wants to sell more bags of chips in 2015 than they sell today. Here’s some back of the envelope math: If chip sales grow by just 4% a year, by 2015, 25% more chips will be sold than today. this will not only cancel out the sodium reduction, it will increase the average calories consumed from chips by 25%.
That's why, despite the good intentions, creating less-unhealthy versions of snacks is not the solution. So long as mega-corporations continue to manufacture and sell snacks as their main line of business, people will be encouraged by their aggressive marketing to consume more and more snacks and less real foods.
As Maria Langer of An Eclectic Mind says, "My question: Why not just put less salt on the damn things?"
Here are three more sources of information on why cutting sodium in our diets is so beneficial, and how to make those cuts in a healthy manner:
Susan Weiner of Susan Weiner Nutrition explains that sodium, which can show up in large amounts in processed food, is something to keep an eye on to help control blood pressure and promote health. Susan includes a list of 11 tips for ways to control blood pressure, and though some of them include tips like reading food labels in search of hidden sodium sources, she also recommends drinking more water, increasing physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Monica Reinagle, M.S., LD/N of The Nutrition Data Blog provides suggestions to a college student concerned with sodium intake. Though Monica's tips are focused on eating at the college cafeteria, they are easily applicable to a workplace diet or to eating out. For example, Monica recommends that her readers, "Say no to avoidable salt. You may have to live with a certain amount of sodium in the prepared foods in the cafeteria. But you can opt out of salty but nutritionally empty foods like chips and French fries, right?"
And Amanda Gardner of MentalHelp.net reports on a New England Journal of Medicine-published study that projects a daily cut in salt intake of approximately half a teaspoon could cause as big a drop in heart disease and death in U.S. adults as a 50 percent drop in the smoking rate.
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