The Sodium Wars: Is Designer Salt an Answer?

Salt is the latest battle in the quest to turn around Americans’ appalling health statistics.  New York, which led the nation with its ban on trans fats in 2006, has again won attention thanks to a state assemblyman’s suggestion that salt shakers be banned from New York restaurants.  It turned out Felix Ortiz’s suggestion was more of a publicity stunt, but TV pundits mocked him, while chefs raised their spatulas and whisks in anger and incredulity.  Meanwhile, companies like PepsiCo and Kraft are sidestepping the debate, taking a different approach.  PepsiCo, for example, is testing a salt reformulation that will reduce sodium in its Lay’s Potato Chips without sacrificing taste.

Whether you think restricting salt in food is more nanny-statism or a path towards improving public health, the stubborn fact remains that Americans ingest too much salt.  The maximum daily required amount of sodium is 1500 milligrams, or less than one teaspoon of salt.  Most Americans, however, consume twice that amount daily, which can lead to hypertension and eventually, coronary disease.  But we all know that fat, sugar, and salt are the evils behind the foods we crave, which is why PepsiCo’s re-engineering of salt in its potato chip product line is an experiment worth watching.

According to PepsiCo, only 20% of the salt in Lay’s Chips is tasted; the rest flows into your bloodstream without you ever having a clue until your doctor eventually lectures you on your salt intake.  By changing the salt particle’s size and crystal structure, PepsiCo claims the amount of salt intake will be reduced while its potato chips’ flavor remains the same.  Within two years, PepsiCo’s researchers claim that the salt will be ready for production, and the company in turn hopes to roll it out its other food products.  PepsiCo’s overall goal is to reduce the sodium in its foods 25% by 2015.

Is this a case of a company wishing to do public good, or to avoid further government regulation?  The answer is probably a combination of both:  consumer habits around the world are gravitating towards healthier products.  In Korea, organic foods (named “well-being”) now line supermarket aisles, Brazilian snack wrappers boast of reduced fat and sugar, and a UK government salt reduction campaign prodded PepsiCo to reduce sodium in its Walkers crisps by 25%.  Now the US government, with Michelle Obama as a spokeswoman, may recommend a reduction in daily sodium intake and is considering other guidelines that could combat childhood obesity.  Considering the vast resources large companies like PepsiCo, Kraft, and Campbell Soup Co. have at their disposal, these firms are wise to invest research and development now, rather than scrambling later to avoid congressional hearings and even government regulations.

But considering past food trends, one should greet any enthusiasm for “re-designed salt” with caution?  Remember fat-free foods, such as salad dressing?  They were full of high fructose corn syrup.  Olestra, the non-digestible fat, was found to deplete the body of nutrients.  Who’s to say that many who indulge in a new reduced sodium snack won’t resist the urge to consume even more chips containing the magic re-engineered salt?

Older generations taught us that everything is okay in moderation.  True, moderation is easy to preach yet hard to practice:  but it sure seems a less complicated effort than that of PepsiCo’s effort to re-design a simple element, salt, in a battle to keep market share.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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