Thursday, January 13, 2011

Alton Brown and the Science Behind Salt

For a few years in late 1990’s, I worked in a kitchen gadget store in Seattle. We made many product recommendations to our customers, and of all the celebrity chefs we touted, Alton Brown received the highest ratings. Unfortunately, he chose to use his celebrity status and reputation against the public health campaign for salt reduction.

Alton Brown is a successful author, television show chef, and TV show presenter who writes and produces many cooking shows on the Food Network. Brown’s main show, “Good Eats,” presents him as a culinary expert, and his television work has made him a very influential person in the food industry. That is why I was shocked and disappointed to see Brown adding his unique touch of comedy and science to the promotion of salt, sponsored by Cargill, a multinational corporation that produces salt and other food products. Cargill and many others in the processed food industry have been battling public health and its salt reduction campaigns since the 1970’s

Cargill’s latest crusade to promote salt includes an interactive website dedicated to Brown’s pitch: The website features Brown as a tour guide/lecturer at Salt 101 Labs. In an extremely formal environment that screams power, he spouts about 10 facts about salt, such as “salt is goood!” “salt is a necessary component to the natural functioning of cells,” “sodium chloride, NaCl, is a compound all humans need to survive,” and “whoever controls salt is in power, and in my home it is me; I control the salt.” The message is clear, salt is not only tasty, but it is also good for you, life sustaining, and powerful. There are also interactive games where, for example, you can move Brown’s arm to season a meal with salt.

After viewing the intro, the user can click to enter the “lab” or the “kitchen.” Both links present authoritative information about salt with a bias towards using more. Brown is in his element explaining technical details to viewers. He excels at explaining the science of food, such as human taste, the chemical make-up of salt, and why it is so effective at enhancing flavor. The scientific facts sound reasonable and non-controversial, and it is unlikely there are factual errors in the science Brown presents. The real problem with the videos is not inaccuracies in scientific reporting but what information is omitted. In fact, there is only one potentially negative comment about salt: putting salt on snails will kill them because they are mostly made of water.

The one potentially redeemable aspect of the video is that they do recommend sea salt—Diamond Crystal sea salt to be precise—because sea salt has less sodium than regular salt. But this is still without much value because of the excessive promotion of adding salt to food.

While it is true that salt is necessary for sustaining life, the missing pieces of information are that humans only need a tiny amount (1,200 to 1,500 milligrams per day) and that excess salt consumption (above 2,300 mg per day) is strongly associated with serious health risks like hypertension, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and stomach cancer Cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer globally, and hypertension is one of the strongest predictors of CVD mortality. Brown’s salt industry presentation does damage to the health initiatives trying to reduce mortality.

There is no doubt that we as humans have cultivated a salt craving. Much of the world’s population consumes salt in quantities of greater than 6,000 milligrams per day, with Eastern European and Asian countries averaging higher than 12,000 milligrams per day. In 2004, the average Canadian daily salt consumption was 7,800 milligrams. Observational studies going back to the 60’s, conducted on indigenous peoples where salt consumption is low have shown that hypertension, the leading cause of CVD mortality, is extremely low there as well, making them a low-risk population. These groups of people had salt intake levels hovering around 1,000 milligrams per day.

Companies like Cargill make their money by “adding value” to food, which means they process it for the consumer. Processed foods account for 70% of the salt in the Canadian diet. For example, the label on a pack of Oreo cookies states that one serving (three cookies) has 160mg of sodium, which is 1/14th of the maximum recommended amount. To further encourage people to put additional salt on chocolate covered cookies and ice cream—a recipe proposed by Brown in the video--is nothing short of dangerous to public health.

Such companies have an incentive to promote salt content in foods, and consumers have built a taste for it. The taste for salt can be reduced, but it can be difficult to change, so any doubt cast on the evidence or authoritative messages proclaiming that salt sustains life make it that much harder for public health practitioners to protect consumers.

The exact pathogenesis of salt is not known, and that leads to the doubt exploited by industry. That is why an etiological understanding of salt’s effect in humans is an important step in regulating the processed food industry. Thus far, the most accepted explanation is that excess sodium in the human system can lead to decreased sodium excretion and water retention. This increases plasma volume and increases vascular tone and contractility, which increases blood pressure, resulting in hypertension.

The Salt 101 video portrays salt as healthful, nourishing, and empowering. By combining Brown’s comedic genius with the persuasive potential of social media, Cargill seduces viewers to ignore those charged with protecting the public health.

(References available upon request)