A happy medium for sodium reduction

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sodium

Let’s hear it for compromise. It’s not often that a middle-ground solution is championed, but the National Salt Reduction Initiative is gaining support precisely because it has not strong-armed anyone into action.

The New York City-led National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) said earlier this month that another seven major food companies have signed up to the scheme, bringing the total number of food manufacturers involved in the program to 29, alongside cities, state authorities, national health organizations and state and local associations.

This is a program that has managed to connect with industry, while keeping consumers and most health advocates happy. Several FoodNavigator-USA readers commented on our coverage​ of the initiative’s expansion, and comments were generally supportive, saying things like, “companies will only have to watch their sales rise”​, “companies that join this initiative are to be applauded”​, and “they care”​.

The scheme is based on a British initiative, which has seen some success in gradually reducing the amount of sodium in people’s diets over the past several years, contributing to an average per capita salt reduction in the UK of about 1g (400mg of sodium) from 2005 to 2008 – and it continues to push industry targets lower.

The key to success has been setting realistic goals for steady salt withdrawal, recognizing the challenges that this poses for food formulators, as well as for consumer palates used to a certain level of saltiness.

In the United States, the National Salt Reduction Initiative has the potential to work because it too takes into account the technical and taste challenges of particular food categories, while striving for an overall 20 percent salt reduction in American diets over five years. It doesn’t ask industry to change things overnight, which might cause customers to go elsewhere if flavors change too suddenly. No industry executive in their right mind would sign up to a voluntary scheme that was likely to lose their company business.

And as one reader of this website suggested, many consumers interpret companies’ involvement in the NSRI program as a signal that they care about Americans’ health. As a result, many major companies have ended up vying with each other to cut the most sodium, in a kind of virtuous cycle of competition. Companies have scrambled to join up to the scheme when they have seen their rivals – or the biggest players in the industry – making sodium reduction pledges.

Of course, there are those who think that the industry should be left to decide for itself how much or how little salt it adds to products…and those who think salt should be removed much faster. The middle ground that the NSRI occupies takes a little from both these views – it is a voluntary program, after all, and the initiative continues to monitor its target levels to ensure they are realistic, or if they can be lowered further.

And let’s not forget either that if people want more salt, they are always free to add it themselves.

The NSRI is a great example of industry going farther and moving faster, as Michelle Obama urged last year when she launched her Let’s Move campaign. Sure, companies were already moving to reduce sodium, but the NSRI has implemented a framework within which the industry can actually work – and companies are jostling to be the first and to make the biggest realistic cuts.

As the First Lady herself illustrates with her oft-cited love of French fries, striving for good health doesn’t have to mean all or nothing.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

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