Mayor Bloomberg's Cause Du Jour: Salt Reduction

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not only wielded a big stick but also walked with a swagger in pushing through “we-know-what’s-good-for-you” initiatives that have roused the ire of folks around the country who, for example, like to smoke where they please, tote the armament of their choice and drink large doses of soda pop without government say-so.

Bloomberg again took to the bully pulpit yesterday to announce that one of his initiatives –- an effort dating to 2008 to strong-arm food marketers and retailers into reducing the amount of sodium they use by 25% by 2014 is, for the most part, on track. 

Representatives from 7 of the 21 companies that “met one or more of their voluntary commitments to reduce sodium content in pre-packaged or restaurant foods” advanced by the National Salt Reduction Initiative stood behind the mayor at the City Hall press conference. Among the success stories, as cited by Bloomberg and reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Howard Saul and Laura Kusisto:

  • Kraft Foods reduced sodium in the company's Singles cheese slices by 18% per serving.

  • Subway reduced sodium in two of its most popular sandwiches, the Subway Club and the Italian B.M.T. [a personal favorite of the mayor’s, we learn], by more than 27%.

  • Unilever cut sodium in its "Ragu Old World Style Traditional" tomato sauce by 20% per serving.

“Some companies said reducing salt proved to be a popular marketing tool,” Anemona Hartocollis reports in the New York Times. “Goya reported that it had reduced salt in its regular canned beans by 5 or 6%, without any drop in sales. ‘We tasted them, and you really wouldn’t notice the difference,’” Goya SVP Joseph Perez claims.

Three companies did not reach the goals they aspired to -- Hostess, which went bankrupt, Boar’s Head and Bertucci, Eric Durkin reports in the New York Daily News.

“Prior to our National Salt Reduction Initiative, there was no comprehensive approach to lowering sodium in foods, and many questioned whether companies would step up to meet a voluntary pledge,” Bloomberg says in the press release accompanying the event. “These companies have demonstrated their commitment to removing excess sodium from their products and to working with public health authorities toward a shared goal –- helping their customers lead longer, healthier lives.”

Coincidentally, a study published yesterday in the American Heart Association’s journal, Hypertension, asserts that “a gradual decrease in salt consumption over a decade — ending in a 40% reduction — would prolong the lives of between 280,000 and 500,000 people by decreasing the risk of hypertension and heart disease,” ABC News’ Karen Keller reports.

“Americans consume an average of 3,600 mg of salt a day, the equivalent of about a teaspoon and a half,” Catherine Winters writes on Yahoo! News. “An estimated 80% of that salt comes from commercially prepared and processed foods.” The AHA’s guidelines recommend that people limit daily sodium intake to no more than about teaspoon. or 2,300 mg daily, and and less – about 1,500 mg a day -- if they are 51 or older, are African-American, or have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

“The idea is, individuals can’t make this choice easily, so maybe we should find ways to work with the food industry,” Kirstin Bibbins-Domingo, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California at San Francisco, tells Keller.

Among those who already are doing so were those represented at the Bloomberg press conference: Russ Moroz, Kraft Foods VP of research, development and quality; Douglas Balentine, Unilever’s director of nutrition and health; Vincent Unanue, Goya Foods category manager; Laura Wilson, Mondelez International director of scientific and regulatory affairs/nutrition; Kevin Kane, Subway’s public relations manager; John Leeman, Fresh Direct’s CMO; and Jocelyn Paal, LiDestri Foods/Francesco Rinaldi marketing manager. Charles Bell, Consumers Union programs director, was also there.

Cautionary warnings of unintended consequences decreasing salt levels in processed foods came from several sources, however, who point out that the mineral could be replaced by more harmful ingredients.

"To muck about in something as complicated [as] diet around one component...that's going to affect everybody, even those people who have moderate salt intake," Michael Alderman, professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells the WSJ’s Saul.

And Morton Satin, Ph.D., science and research director at the Salt Institute, points out that salt is an essential ingredient. “The link between high blood pressure and salt [is] just “a theory,” he tells the Times’ Hartocollis, and the “cocktail of chemical constituents” being substituted pose unknown risks.

“This has got nothing to do with selling an extra pound of salt,” Satin informs Keller. “One good snowstorm, we sell more salt than a whole year of food.”

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