Some people say Americans are obsessed with “big.” Our televisions, our SUVs and, most notably for us, our meals are ballooning in size. One could do a double take at the magnitude of some restaurant portions that are passed off as single entrées.
Chefs love big, too—but unfortunately, it’s not outrageously sized portions of asparagus and broccoli that we’re seeing. What’s hot on the restaurant scene are big, bold flavors, which increasingly means crossing paths with the food police’s latest bandit: sodium.
The War on Salt
We’ve known for decades that eating too much salt is devastating to our health. Yet, many Americans were more or less blasé about its danger until local governments fired the first shots in the war against salt. New York State, for instance, was among the first to propose restrictions on using salt in restaurant-prepared foods.
We’ve seen this government-induced backlash before. Consider foods that mention the “t” word. Those laden with trans-fats are more or less fugitives on the run and rising to similar infamy is high-fructose corn syrup. Now, it seems, Americans are waking up to the fact that sodium should be on the list of armed and dangerous food fellons.
The truth of the matter is that Americans eat far too much salt. We should be consuming less that 2,300 mg per day (and those with certain health issues should take in even less than that). Most people, however, are consuming more than 3,400 mg per day. It’s “excessive,” according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in a recent press release about Americans’ sodium-eating habits. Check out what else the IOM said: the only way to kick our salt addiction is to set federal standards for how much salt food manufacturers, restaurants and foodservice companies can add to their products. It should be a “coordinated approach” that over time, would gradually wean us off our need for salt.
This extreme response was enough to make Josh Ozersky, a writer for Time magazine, consider moving to Canada rather than trade happy taste buds for a happy heart (1). While I disagree with his logic, I am a little peeved by the situation.
It’s absolutely essential that we learn to eat less salt (and yes, I’d do so for a healthy heart). But I feel learn is the key word. Step one for the Fed’s anti-salt task force should be education. Explain to Americans what 2,300 mg of salt physically looks like, for one. Let them know about the negative consequences of eating too much salt and how to avoid it both at home and outside. I bring this up because studies say that Americans are watching their salt intake at home, but not when they eat elsewhere.
The whole situation boils down to a sad state of affairs. We love things to excess—to the point of self harm—to the point that government feels the need to step in and create restrictions. Food companies and restaurant chefs are guilty, too, as they’d rather put out a top-selling unhealthy item than use their resources to develop something healthier. Perhaps, here’s where we can help. If we can explain to shoppers (on our packaging or in our retail stores) exactly how and why our foods are healthy, we have a fighting chance of getting consumers to think for themselves about their food choices. I’d like to think that if shoppers were properly armed with the facts, they would naturally gravitate toward healthier foods rather than blindly eating what’s put on their plates. WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2010