The salt regulation – “So quit eating junk”

This post has started as a reaction to a random question on the net regarding further reduction of salt in processed foods on top of the reductions which has already been made by the industry, and whether it is good, bad, and whether it is fair. Leaving aside the fairness question (it is not one I wish to tackle for the industry, I leave that to the finance people), and before I go any further, I would like to state that what I am about to say is in no way the opinion of the industry, but my personal views. Whatever they may coincide with professionally has no bearing on anything other than the fact that perhaps someone somewhere could agree with me, or alternatively twist my words into something they like, but I may not. So, this much for the disclaimer.

I agree, to a degree at least, that the average Westerner consumes too much salt, when measured in total over the average daily intakes of populations. Some countries do better than average than others, but the trend is there to see across the board. However call your attention to the words “average”. As the old saying goes, “there are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics”, and in my view, normalising a population’s salt intake does not, and should not start with trying to push the processed food industry into salt reductions to and past all limits. Not because I disagree with the idea that processed food should have less salt—I do, actually, but not at all because of the aforementioned “average” salt intake.

The reasons why I agree that salt limits should be imposed are mostly a foodie’s concern for quality: high salt levels in food (similar to high sugar levels, as it happens) tend to mask/compensate for lack of flavour due to inferior quality of the raw ingredients. Therefore, as the industry is forced to drop the salt levels, oftentimes the quality of the products has to go up simply to compensate for the inevitable loss of flavour. Do I applaud that? You bet. I might not indulge in processed foods to the degree this mysterious “average” person does, but I do, too, like the idea that I can buy a good high-quality ready-made chilled pizza for example, once in a while on a Friday night after a long and tiring week – and know that the lovely flavour of fresh mozzarella or whatever is on the product in question is just the raw materials, not something faked and boosted by things I’d rather not ingest.

But I digress, as usual. What I was trying to say is that while the salt level regulation in food, difficult for the industry as it is, is a good thing, it does not necessarily mean that it will have any sort of great impact on the average European’s salt intake. The reason for that is simple – let’s face it: people eat garbage, street food, junk, whatever you want to call it. Again, in some countries they do so less than in others (it really depends on the national food culture and the actual locality), but they do. French Fries (or as the Brits call them out of dislike for the idea of French, “chips”) are a high-selling street food all over the place, and I will not bother to go into details of pitfalls of eating junk here (it’s a separate and different discussion altogether). The point is, consumers do buy it and consumers do eat it. And no amount of regulations to the industry will change the fact that any consumer can pick up a jar of salt off the table and sprinkle his or her food liberally with it. Unless the preposterous measure of trying to regulate what people put on their food voluntarily is passed, it is the average consumer’s choice how much salt to consume.

Furthermore, on the subject of consumer choices vs. regulation of industry, while I personally believe that ultimately the choices of food fall on the consumer, professionally I know that many consumers are not educated enough to really tell what is good and not good for them, nor do many bother to read labels or care. I am not going to assign blame for this here and now, but it is so. Therefore, in addition to food quality improvements, I believe some degree of regulation of what goes into industrially produced food is a good thing in terms of setting some sort of standard and not selling anything which is outright deleterious to one’s health, especially when the products are targeted at children. (I shall also not digress into the soapbox issue of parental responsibility and feeding their young properly.)

However, any such regulation is a two-edged sword. Many food products are meant and are designed to be used in moderation, or even minimally – such as seasoning blends, cake icings, chocolate and a variety of treats and snacks. And in case of those, it is really up to the consumers themselves to realise (or for the governmental institutions to educate the society about the fact) that eating cake daily is not normal, that one should not eat “snacks” on a regular basis. You cannot make a boiled sugar candy less sugary, and you cannot make bagged salt and sugar (when sold as such) less salt or sugar than it is – and again, it is ultimately up to the consumers to know how much of each they are using when they cook and add those to their drinks at home.

To sum it up, that said, I do believe there is and will be a market for the premium, reduced salt, fat and sugar products – I merely do not believe in forcing all the products to be over-regulated (Salt-free brined products? Sugar-free meringue, anyone?), simply because even the health-conscious consumers may want to buy luxury, treat products for taste and texture (achieved best through addition of salt and sugar, the boogiemen of food industry) at times. I also think (at least in the UK) that so long as the chip shops and other fast food places make a good business selling unlabeled junk food to the public, stringently enforcing regulations about how much salt can go into something one would buy in a supermarket is, statistically, a bit of a moot point in terms of the health and salt consumption of that “average” person when they go out and eat something somewhat resembling food out of a Styrofoam box on a street corner.

So quit eating junk.

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