The neverending war on the white stuff

It is essential to human life. People once even offered it to God. So why are today’s grey-faced officials so scared of salt?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

It’s been a bad year in many ways, what with the recession and all. But I suspect that, in the future, we will look back on 2009 with some fondness, because this will be the last year that food tastes of anything. Well, it will be if the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) gets its way.

This week, the FSA published new targets for food manufacturers on the salt content of their products, which must be met by 2012. The eventual aim is to get each adult’s intake of salt down to no more than six grams per day. At present, according to the FSA, the average intake is 8.6 grams. That’s down 0.9 grams per day since the start of the decade, but it still leaves a long way to go. The new targets focus on 80 categories of products, including bread, meat products and cereals, as well as convenience foods such as pizza, readymade meals and savoury snacks.

selected examples from the new salt targets

Health campaigners have already declared their dissatisfaction with the new goals. Alex Callaghan of the British Heart Foundation told the BBC: ‘We are still moving at a snail’s pace. At the current rate of reduction, it would take us 15 years to reach the 6g per day target, putting another generation at risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.’

On the other hand, food makers have expressed concern at the new targets. Julian Hunt of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents the major processed food producers, said its members were keen to implement the salt-reduction policy ‘where technologically possible, safe and acceptable to consumers’. However, reformulating products in such a way that consumers will still enjoy them would require finding new processing and ingredient solutions, said Hunt, adding: ‘We believe that targets are a relatively simplistic approach to driving progress.’ Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, said: ‘The new salt targets are much harder and, in some cases, we believe customers won’t accept the change in taste.’

No doubt some cynics will see this industry reaction as simply manufacturers dragging their feet in the interest of profit. In reality, producers are probably tearing their hair out. While the desire to produce healthier food seems a noble one, it would be pointless if the foods produced were so bland that people didn’t want to buy them.

Two things are missing from this discussion. The first is a balanced view of the evidence on salt and health. The second is a recognition of the central role that salt plays in the way we taste food.

Salt is essential to life. We would die without it, even if the quantities we generally consume are well above those needed for survival. But salt has been linked to high blood pressure, which is in turn linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. So it would seem obvious that reducing salt intake would be a good thing. However, our bodies are extremely well-adapted to regulating the levels of sodium in our systems and different people adapt in different ways to salt intake. Yet the FSA targets seem to suggest that policymakers in Whitehall, and their committees of medical advisers, are better judges of our salt requirements than our own subtle biological mechanisms developed over millions of years of evolution.

When it comes to actual research on the effects of salt reduction, the results are inconsistent and any benefits are generally very small. A review in the British Medical Journal in 2002 concluded: ‘Intensive interventions, unsuited to primary care or population prevention programmes, provide only small reductions in blood pressure and sodium excretion, and effects on deaths and cardiovascular events are unclear. Advice to reduce sodium intake may help people on antihypertensive drugs to stop their medication while maintaining good blood pressure control.’ In other words, if you’ve already got high blood pressure, salt reduction might help, but for everyone else it is probably pointless. (For more on this, see Turning salt into Public Enemy No.1, by Rob Lyons.)

Salt is also one of the primary factors in flavour. Our tongues are currently only believed to detect five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami (1). Making salt central to how we experience food almost certainly evolved as a result of its importance to our health. As the doyen of British cookery, Delia Smith, notes in her Complete Cookery Course: ‘It’s amazing the difference salt makes to food, almost magically bringing out the flavour of a soup or sauce that may have seemed quite bland.’

In another cookery classic, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee reminds us how salt has always been regarded as extremely valuable. It was prescribed as an offering to God in the Old Testament. In the book of Ezekiel (16:4), there is reference to the custom of rubbing salt on newborns. Roman soldiers were paid a special allowance – a salarium – to buy the stuff (the source of the word ‘salary’). The control of salt, and revolts against such control, have been influential from the French Revolution to Gandhi’s India. Even Jesus knew the importance of the white stuff, describing believers as the ‘salt of the earth’.

In the UK in recent weeks, we’ve seen how politicians are increasingly treated with cynicism, regarded as self-interested and devoid of principle. However, one area that politicians have colonised with great success in the past 20 years or so is the regulation of our personal habits, all in the name of protecting us from ourselves. And as with so many health campaigns, the crusade against salt is all about glorifying the crusaders. So, when a government minister or the head of a quango tells us to change our wicked ways or face the consequences, we should take their advice with a very large pinch of sodium chloride.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons asked why the authorities are demonising salt. He also wondered what happened to humane medicine and criticised the endless diet of government intervention. Professor Michael Baum argued that prevention is not always better than cure. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick compared the Nazi and New Labour crusades against smoking. Patrick Basham and John Luik criticised some flabby claims about food and cancer. Nathalie Rothschild described food labels as a red light against enjoying food. Or read more at spiked issues Food.

(1) Umami is the non-salty sensation of ‘savoury’ epitomised by monosodium glutamate and was formally recognised as a separate taste in 2002. See Wikipedia

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Topics Politics


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