A push to reduce salt content in food

Salt and pepper shakers are seen in a New York City diner.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Even if you're really diligent about your salt intake -- you don't add too much to the food you eat at the table, you check labels as best you can in the stores -- the average American still eats about a teaspoon and a half of salt every day. A federal advisory group, the Institutes of Medicine, says that is way too much. Today the IOM officially recommended that the Food and Drug Administration force a gradual cutback in how much salt is allowed to be in processed foods.

We've called Dr. Benjamin Jones to talk some about this. He is a flavor chemist at David Michael & Co., that's a food flavoring company in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Jones, welcome to the program.

Dr. Benjamin Jones: Thank you, glad to be with you.

Ryssdal: This thing that we all have on our dining room table, salt, it's not just about taste, right? It is an ingredient that people use for actual food chemistry reasons, isn't it?

Jones: Well the classic example is the processed meat. It's used as a binder to help hold everything together -- especially hot dogs, bologna, similar products. It's also used as part of the curing process for things like country ham, if you ever get into the Southeastern United States. And it's also involved in getting baked goods to set up properly and puff up nicely when you're running them through the bakery.

Ryssdal: So what happens to my kids on a Sunday morning when I make my buttermilk pancakes and I don't put that salt in there, I mean, they're not quite as puffy.

Jones: They won't be quite as puffy and they won't taste right either. They'll be kind of flat.

Ryssdal: All right, so I'll get some complaints from the kids I suppose. So what do we do then if the FDA goes along with these recommendations and says, listen, we have to cut gradually the amount of salt in our foods. How do replace it? How do we keep the chemistry going?

Jones: Bear in mind the bulk of your salt is coming from processed foods. Things like soups, gravies, frozen dinners. So the salt that they're asking to be taken out of those type of foods really isn't involved in the process. That's all involved in flavor. And with what the government is calling for -- my personal opinion is it's not a bad idea. Slowly reduce the salt, just bring it down a little bit at the time. And for the most part people will most likely not notice. This kind of thing was done in Britain several years ago with a great deal of success.

Ryssdal: You go to the supermarket, you buy a can of soup, it's got like a thousand milligrams of salt in it -- or whatever the amount is, it's pretty high. What does that soup company do? Can it just cut back on that salt and hope we'll get used to it?

Jones: It can. It can slowly lower the salt and that will become the new norm for people. And if you take them back to the original, they'll go, "Oh, my word. What's all this salt in here? Why is it so salty?" I can speak from personal experience on that. I worked for a major food manufacturer for years and for a while I was involved on the regular side of the product line and then they moved me over to the reduced sodium side. And initially, I kind of went, well this stuff needs more flavor. And then I became very accustomed to it. When they took me back over to the regular line, my reaction was: Who dumped the salt shaker? It felt learned. We don't start off our lives wanting a lot of salt. We learn to want a lot of salt because of what we eat. If we slowly reduce it, for most people it's not going to be an issue.

Ryssdal: Just to the flavor point one more time. We could also throw other stuff in there that's going to help us forget that the salt's not there.

Jones: That's true. We can add flavors, and working as a flavor chemist that's close to my heart. One of the classic things that a cook will do is use spices to make up for it. So there's a whole slew of tools available, but there's no magic bullet. There's no single, oh, this is the one thing you drop in and you're good to go. It's going to have to be almost a product-by-product reformulation work.

Ryssdal: What about the expense for people? Does this have a financial impact as well?

Jones: It's going to cost more, that's reality. Salt is cheap and anything you're doing to replace it or make up for the reduction in salt is going to add cost to the product. It shouldn't be a lot, but it is going to be there.

Ryssdal: Benjamin Jones. He is a senior flavor chemist at David Michael. It's in Philadelphia, Penn. Dr. Jones, thanks so much for your time.

Jones: Quite welcome. Thank you.

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