I requested that my friend & colleague in the food world David Schleifer post something about his work on FDA regulation and the Center for the Science for Public Interest. Here’s what he had to say: (and I’m cross posting this on criticaleating, hope that’s OK!)
I’m worried about my pretzel. And my pickles. And my pie.
In response to a petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Food and Drug Administration is currently taking public comments on whether or not to remove salt from its list of foods generally recognized as safe. According to the FDA, the use of a food additive may be generally recognized as safe based either on a preponderance of scientific evidence or, for substances in use before 1958, based on a substantial history of consumption by a significant number of consumers.
Few foods have a more substantial history than salt: the word “salary” originates from the Latin salarium, which referred to Roman soldiers’ allowances to buy salt. Salt taxes have incited protest from 13th century France to 20th century India. Salt is found in nearly every recipe and food product, and not just because it enhances flavor. It contributes to texture and structure in breads and other baked goods. It controls spoilage in packaged foods and promotes proper fermentation in pickled items. And it is indispensable in maintaining color and emulsification in everything from bologna to ice cream.
As usual, CSPI presents the scientific evidence as a slam-dunk, wishing us to believe that all Americans eat too much salt, all of us would benefit from eating less salt, and all manufacturers should be required to significantly reduce their use of sodium chloride.
I’m not qualified to comment on the scientific evidence, although there are plenty of reasons to think that CSPI is ignoring the studies that don’t support its claims. But the larger point is that there’s a real risk of unintended consequences when governments consider regulating something so basic. My dissertation on trans fats (forthcoming! I swear!) shows that in the 1980s there was a real push by health advocates, including CSPI, to get restaurants and food manufacturers to reduce their use of saturated fats. There was no regulation per se. But food companies responded by using oils containing trans fats, which were regarded by many, including CSPI, as a healthy alternative to animal fats and tropical oils.
If salt loses its generally recognized as safe status, or if food companies decide they can add value to their brands by reducing it, technologists will be stuck trying to compensate. Substitutes like potassium chloride, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast extract, glutamates, aspartic acids, 5′ ribonucleotides, disodium 5′-iosinate and disodium 5′-guanylate don’t effectively make up for salt’s flavor and functionality, let alone its wide availability and competitive price. And if food technologists feel pressured to use those polysyllabic substitutes, will we find out in ten years that the substitutes were actually worse than salt itself?
Food technologists themselves recognize the parallel between trans fats and salt. In an editorial in Food Product Design in January, Lynn Kuntz asked “Remember what happened when we demonized a particular type of fat – and didn’t the food police hail the emergence of the solution: trans fats?” She wonders, “Why don’t we set up federal regulations governing overtime,” since working long hours is correlated with a risk of higher blood pressure. If you’re curious about how food producers have dealt with federal trans fat labeling, check out my article Fear of Frying. If you’re concerned about your coleslaw, the FDA is accepting comments until March 28, 2008.