Home Health and Health Care ‘Salt-Shaming,’ ‘Food Police,’ and Other Ways We Talk About Food Policy

‘Salt-Shaming,’ ‘Food Police,’ and Other Ways We Talk About Food Policy

by Erika Nicole Kendall
credit: flickr/dinesarasota

Today in New York City—commence eye rolls—a policy that requires certain kinds of restaurants to list salt warnings on their menus takes effect.

Restaurant chains with more than 15 restaurants located within NYC’s borders will ultimately have to place a warning symbol with a salt shaker in the middle next to any menu item with more than a day’s worth of a person’s suggested sodium intake—2,300mg, which amounts to a teaspoon of salt—in that single item.

From ABC:

“When you see this warning label, you know that that item has more than the total amount of sodium that you should consume in a single day,” city Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said Monday at an Applebee’s in Times Square as 40 of the chain’s New York City-area locations announced they had added the labels ahead of the deadline.

The average American consumes about 3,400 mg of salt per day, and public health advocates have cheered the measure as a smart step to make diners aware of how much sodium they’re ordering. A TGI Friday’s New York cheddar and bacon burger counts 4,280 mg, for example while a Chili’s boneless Buffalo chicken salad has 3,460 mg. [source]

Why does sodium intake matter? What does it have to do with better health?

So, imagine a scale. On one side, you have salt. The other, potassium. The two naturally balance each other out, and create a sort of equilibrium in your body. Imagine envisioning too much salt on one side, and not enough potassium to balance it out. When the two are out of balance—something that is likely to happen regularly in the diet of someone who eats either too much processed and fast food or someone who just doesn’t eat enough produce. (The two aren’t always mutually exclusive…often, they go hand in hand.)

When there’s too much salt in your diet, your body retains as much water as it can to not only protect your organs from the potentially acidic climate the salt creates, but also to aid in trying to wash your insides of the excess salt. This has the added consequence of making it more difficult for your heart to pump blood and oxygen through all of your limbs, which forces your heart to beat faster in order to get the job done. This kind of stress placed on your heart is especially troublesome for pregnant people, people with heart failure, and people with high cholesterol. (Here are a few resources to explain this better.)

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of push back on this.

“The people of New York City should fight against an over-reaching government bureaucracy” that’s acting on misimpressions about the risks of salt, Salt Institute trade group President Lori Roman said Monday.

An international study involving 100,000 people suggested last year that most people’s salt intake was OK for heart health, though other scientists faulted the study.

Restaurateurs say the city shouldn’t create its own salt-warning scheme when federal regulators have been working on national sodium guidelines.

Such local requirements put an “overly onerous and costly burden” on city chain restaurants, often owned by small-time franchisees, the National Restaurant Association said Monday.

Health Department officials say they have clear authority to require the warnings and believe the public health benefits outweigh any burdens to restaurant owners.

Indeed, Apple Metro CEO Zane Tankel said adding the warnings won’t affect the bottom line at his Applebee’s in the area.

“We’re not the food police, and we’re not telling (customers) what to do,” he said. “But I think it’s important that we give them the opportunity to make the right decisions, or wrong decisions, if that’s what they so choose.” [source]

So, here are the specifics as I know them and why, I suspect, NYC’s Health Commissioner specified the restaurants she did.

One of the things I’ve realized from living here is, while there’s a strong entrepreneurial current that runs throughout the city, this doesn’t extend itself outward into the more economically disadvantaged areas in the same way it does in, say, Manhattan or gentrified areas in Brooklyn. There will always be a few outliers, and they’re often heavily supported by their communities, but it’s very difficult for people to get out there at first and stay out there for long enough to build a name for themselves. It’s just the nature of the beast.

That being said, the only restaurants that can often get out into these places and stay there…are restaurant chains. Your Applebees restaurants will likely be in the shopping centers, you’ll have your food courts, but thanks—mostly—to crappy bank investment practices, these places are riddled with outsiders coming in opening businesses… and, when it comes to food, they’re mostly chain restaurants.

Chain restaurants with crappy food that requires a ton of salt in order to make it appealing.

People in the poorest parts of the city often work in close proximity to Manhattan, but they sometimes have the longest commutes. The restaurants they have access to when they get off at their train stop are often your McDonald’s and your White Castles and many other places where the food is highly processed, and requires a ton of salt in order to taste appealing. (I’ve made this argument before – the healthier restaurants often don’t set up shop in poorer areas, because the belief is that they can’t afford it and won’t find it important enough to splurge on. Watching businesses spring up in the city hasn’t proved me wrong yet.)

These are also the areas in the city where the health statistics look the most bleak. Efforts to curb the sizes of sodapop sold in the city were intended to target areas where the larger drinks are bought the most, which also happens to be where the rates of obesity (though this is a tenuous understanding of overall health) were the highest. High blood pressure, high presence of dialysis centers, other markers of poor health are overwhelmingly present in these areas… as are these fast food restaurants. Considering the fact that many of these conditions are often impacted by the consumption of processed food, food that is sold in large quantities from these places, it makes sense for the city to try to target these places specifically with awareness campaigns.

These are the people who need the knowledge these policies represent, and they are the ones most likely to make a decision that compromises their health out of sheer exhaustion, if nothing else. They’re also the ones least likely to be interviewed by the media or polled by polling organizations or researched by scientists [who need to prove a point to force their anti-regulation agenda] regarding the way the policy will help them.

And that brings me to my next point. I’ve said, for years, that I am deeply resentful of the term “food police.” Years ago, I had a lobbying organization following my every move and constantly referring to me as “the food police.” Now, that term has been passed on to an—ahem—larger threat to their fantasy of unregulated industry… but the idea that merely increasing the level of information that consumers have access to before they make their decision of whether or not to buy is “policing” other people’s food choices is absurd. Painting the awareness campaign as “shaming” is equally absurd—if anything, this is shaming restaurants for not being able to produce meals that people want without using the universal cheat code of “just pile on the salt.”

Using language that paints these efforts and the people who support them as “food police” seeking to shame people into making a different decision—years ago, the term was “nanny state”—isn’t about the everyday person disliking the policy; it’s about the businesses who have to abide by these policies and the people paid to represent them putting this language out there. It’s not grassroots emotion—it’s that plastic stuff you buy for your dog to pee on so they don’t ruin your lawn.

People often make decisions that run counter to their ultimate goal because they don’t know enough information about how the decision impacts them. The city found a uniquely meaningful way to target the information that matters to the people who need it. That’s a cornerstone of capitalism—people having the information they need to make the choices that are best for them, and paying money to the people who deserve it. The idea that people are intentionally trying to circumvent that process should be seen for what it is: people who don’t want to have to change to accommodate the needs of the public are trying to prevent the public from learning about why they shouldn’t buy from them. And it sucks.

Is this a good idea? I think it’s always a good idea to have more information on the table. I think regulation that results in information instead of bans is important. Anything that encourages mindfulness is helpful, and discouraging awareness campaigns should be seen as little more as businesses fighting for their right to continue to take advantage of our most vulnerable, and then leave the rest of us to pay for it.

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Carly December 24, 2015 - 3:53 AM

“Anything that encourages mindfulness is helpful, and discouraging awareness campaigns should be seen as little more as businesses fighting for their right to continue to take advantage of our most vulnerable, and then leave the rest of us to pay for it.”

I agree with this. The food industry (and others) thrive off of the lack of information being available to the consumer as well as consumer “laziness” i.e. no time to look up all the nuances and shadiness in the industry regarding food and their practices. Providing people with the option to make better decisions will be better for businesses in the long run, imo. I’d trust eating somewhere that lets me know what’s up instead of the one going about things underhandedly *waves at Fresh & Co.* Also, from working in community nutrition and trying hard to educate people on food choice, understanding nutrition labels, etc., it’s easier when the information is presented not only by little ol’ me, but when the info is more ubiquitous, or at least I hope so.

Simon February 23, 2016 - 5:07 PM

Salt is my weakness and it’s everywhere in HUGE quantities! I am making a concerted effort to cut back with some progress. It will be nice to have my bp taken and not be concerned.

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