Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Grain of Salt

PepsiCo announced that it plans to "encourage people to live healthier lives and to address growing consumer desire for healthier, great-tasting products."

I'm a skeptical type, so I'm not jumping for joy yet.

Among the improvements will be an increase in the whole grains and other healthful ingredients in its products and a reduction of the average sugar content by 25 percent and the average saturated fat by 15 percent per serving in the coming decade, PepsiCo said in a news release. The company, which offers salty snacks through its Frito-Lay business, said it also will reduce the average amount of sodium by 25 percent in each serving within the next five years. The announcement echos similar statements by other food companies including Kraft Foods Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc. about making products more healthful.

We'll see what they come up with. My significant other needs to keep a lid on  his sodium intake because of high blood pressure, and a 25 percent drop in sodium in the majority of packaged foods still leaves too much for him. Besides, does a decrease in sodium intake create a benefit for those of us with low blood pressure?

I think that any genuine efforts to make foods better for consumers -- maybe I should say less harmful -- is a step in the right direction. But will reducing sugar or salt by 25 percent or cutting 15 percent of the fat actually make these foods good for us? Will we get other unwanted ingredients? I remember when low-fat, light, "lite" and fat-free foods such as cookies hit store shelves many years ago, I looked at the label and often noticed an increase in sugar and other ingredients that you don't want to eat in excess.

Besides that, I prefer the flavor of potato chips without too much salt, although a PepsiCo representative has told the Wall Street Journal that a specially engineered salt will decrease the amount of sodium while keeping the same salty taste.

Is there any scientific evidence to show that such changes will benefit the health of consumers?
Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times cites some studies that project the prevention of hundreds of thousands of strokes and heart attacks, and the savings of tens of billions of dollars in health care costs if Americans consumed less salt.
On the other hand is an interesting take on the salt debate from John Tierney in "When It Comes to Salt, No Rights or Wrongs. Yet" in the New York Times.

You may also like: Salon's food geek Francis Lam figures out how much sodium meat absorbs from brining.

New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduces a bill that would ban New York restaurants from adding salt to food and levy a fine of $1,000 for violators who "use use salt in any form in the preparation of any food." More at the Daily News.

Japan's Fish Industry Angling for Consumers That Got Away
Who would have guessed that fish consumption is falling in Japan, the land that brought us sushi and sashimi? According to a story March 22 on page A1 of The Wall Street Journal, a campaign is under way to win over consumers who are increasingly turning to land-based meat. Writing for the Journal, Yuka Hayashi reports that since 2000, the average household's monthly spending on seafood has decreased 23 percent. Part of the campaign includes rock singers singing about the benefits of fish.

Bitter Battle Between Sugar and Taro Interests
The Wall Street Journal this week reports: "Two important sides of local history are fighting over water rights in the central valley of Maui, pitting the last of the state's once-powerful sugar plantations against native farmers who want to grow [taro,] a vegetable tied to Hawaii's ancient culture. ... After a half-decade of hearings and legal maneuvering, the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management is set to issue a key ruling in the dispute in coming months. The decision ... will dictate how much water will be returned to four major streams in western Maui and how much will continue to flow to the sugar plantation. ...
The ruling could have significant consequences: The sugar plantation says it could close if it loses water, while native Hawaiians hope it sets a precedent for a case involving a bigger chunk of water the plantation diverts daily."

Related: On October 30, 2009, the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported that Gay & Robinson harvested its last sugar crop on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, leaving the struggling Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company the last producer of sugar in the state.

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