Toward a blander future!

The Institute of Medicine has released its report on salt in the American diet and, as expected, it recommends that the FDA mandate reduced sodium content in packaged foods and chain restaurants. Here’s a short summary from The Washington Post of how this would work:

In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600 billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated so that consumers barely notice the modification.

As Jeff Ely notes, the idea is that this is a coordination problem. We might all be better off if we reduced our salt intake, but in order to calibrate our tastes to a lower level we have to gradually reduce the salt in all foods at the same time. (For what it’s worth, the FDA has stated it’s not currently planning salt regulations.)

There’s some disagreement about the benefits of reducing salt consumption across the entire population and about whether our “bliss point” for salt content is really that malleable; John Tierney writes on this topic here and here. But for now let’s grant the plausibility of both of those claims. It’s one thing to say we should all reduce our salt consumption. It’s quite another to say that a government agency is capable of gradually and imperceptibly reducing the amount of sodium in the nation’s food supply over the course of a decade and stopping at the “correct” level. The IOM report’s introduction hints at the scale of this endeavor:

… if strategies to reduce sodium intake in the United States are to be successful, they must embrace an approach that emphasizes the entire food system and emphasizes sodium intake as a national concern. This report recommends the use of regulatory tools in an innovative and unprecedented fashion to gradually reduce a widespread ingredient in foods through a well-researched, coordinated, deliberative, and monitored process. [...] the approach must be supported by a strong federal government commitment to sodium reduction and leadership from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in cooperation with other agencies and groups to ensure coordination with all stakeholders including the food industry and consumers.

Monitoring! Deliberation! Coordination! This is bureaucracy porn for technocrats. It’s a safe bet that the people at the IOM aren’t reading Hayek on their lunch breaks, because if you have read Hayek the success of this enterprise starts to sound very far-fetched. You begin to wonder how the people making these decisions could possibly have all the information they need to pull this off. How gradual is gradual? What percentage of salt should be taken out of each product each year? Is it the same for bread, pretzels, spaghetti sauce, pickles?

This knowledge problem is exacerbated by the fact that salt’s impact on taste is complex. It doesn’t just make things taste salty. It can make food seem like it has greater body and reduces the perception of bitter elements (recall the way a tiny bit of salt can reduce the bitterness of bad coffee). As food companies compensate for reduced salt in their foods, they may have to make them richer in other ways or use more sweeteners. Similarly, as Tierney points out, if anti-salt advocates are wrong and consumers do have an inflexible satiation point for salt, they may eat more food just to keep their salt intake constant. To some extent we may end up trading salt for calories, hardly an unequivocal good given our current excess.

It’s doubtful whether a government agency could accurately gauge consumer preferences. The FDA is not in the food-selling business and so has little incentive to care about taste. The IOM report repeatedly stresses keeping food “acceptable” to consumers. But what if you don’t want acceptable, you want delicious? Don’t expect the FDA to care. As demonstrated by its actions against unpasteurized dairy and its threat to ban menthol cigarettes, the agency places little value on consumers’ choices when they conflict with regulators’ own assessments of acceptable risk. There’s no reason to believe the interests of regulators and consumers will be aligned on salt levels either.

Comments

  1. Jake B. says:

    Isn’t it funny that salt has been a popular ingredient of discussion in the cocktail kingdom as a sweet/ bitter pacifying agent the past few years. Wonder when the OLCC will start policing how much salt we put in our cocktails or rim our glasses with (not that I’ve been a fan of salted margaritas unless the its a pinch of black sea salt shaken in the cocktail). Good luck with your Genever punch presentation at C.C. tomorrow. Wish I could attend!

  2. Jake B. says:

    A little off topic but how about a drink to sooth the political nerves. Congrats on the Bols job and since I cannot be present at the kick off party let me offer a recpie for ridicule

    Jacob’s Ladder
    1 1/2 oz. Bols genever
    1/2 0z. Campari
    1/4 0z. 10 yr. Laphroaig scotch
    1/4 0z. Antica Formula Vermouth
    1/20z. lemon juice
    dash of angostura bitters and angostura orange as well
    shake/ dbl strain/coupe

    I liked the maltiness of the two primary liquors (Genever= malt wine) and, even though Campari is so passe for Amaros (snobbishness dramatized), its the only strongest b#tch to handle this company (unless Fernet was invited) . Miss Antica holds the fort down rightfully so as your sophisticated sweetening agent. Boudreauu wrote about a genever cocktail served at Death and Co. a year or two back involving orange bitters so what better way to round it out other than a healthy dose of angostura O.G. bitters and their orange vareiation as well (do not doubt them). I know there’s a lot goin’ on there but it was meant to be tinkered with. Best of wishes!

  3. Jacob Grier says:

    @Jake B.: Thanks, that sounds good. Believe it or not there’s another bartender in town working on a drink with genever, Laguvulin, and Fernet! His is different though — no vermouth and no citrus that I remember. Will try this out!

  4. Barzelay says:

    You know how I’ve been wishy-washy on calorie-labeling, smoking bans, etc.? Well, this is clearly on the other side of my consistent position. And not just because I love food. Everyone has the information they need to make informed decisions about their salt intake. Those in the roughly 8% of the population that has any risk whatsoever from increased salt consumption generally know they are at risk (some people are at risk from salt intake and don’t yet know it, though hopefully health care reform will allow us to check this off the list as well). And everyone knows how much salt is in the food they are eating–it’s already required to be on the label.

    In other situations, such as calorie labeling on menus, there is at least an argument that consumers make “bad” choices because they don’t have the information necessary to make “good” ones. There is no such argument here. Nor is there an argument that low-salt food is unavailable. In a triumph of the market, grocery shelves are littered with products touting their low sodium content. I can’t buy any snack food without feeling personally affronted by “lightly salted” alternatives to what I really want: HEAVILY SALTED. And of course, anyone is also welcome to adventure to the sides of their grocery store, where all manner of unsalted items live: produce and raw meat that one has to–gasp!–cook oneself.

    The only argument I can see here is that people are too lazy/poor/unskilled to cook their own food, and are therefore forced to buy processed food from the grocery store or from chain restaurants. Those processed foods are, for the most part, “high” in salt (though not excessively so for over 90% of the population). Low-sodium alternatives are, arguably, not widely available enough. Therefore, the at-risk-80% is currently “forced” to consume a high-salt diet.

    But even if that’s the case, the answer is not to spoil the fun for everyone, it’s to work with those 8% to connect them with their healthy alternatives, and teach them to cook real (unprocessed) food. Maybe even offer a tax break for purchase of cookware. But don’t fuck with my Ruffles.

  5. Aaron J. Grier says:

    I wonder if salt is subsidized by the feds…

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