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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Delay And Divert

by tristero

"Delay and divert"... hmmm... remind you of anything? Like the rightwing pushback against repealing DADT - you know, as in, "now's not the time, during a war, to engage in social experiments." There's some delay for you. As for divert, hey look! Over there! It's a flying Sestak-gate, big as life, the faux-scandal du jour!

It's an all-purpose strategy, and a successful one. It's also old as the hills, but even when we're aware of it, it can still work like a charm. Case in point: a front page article this lovely, steaming Manhattan morning about the efforts by Big Food to protect their right to keep overdosing us with salt. And why would they want to do that? So that their top executives can afford the good stuff - great meats, seafood, veggies, fruits, all lovingly prepared by their private chefs. Which means they never have to eat the self-admitted crummy products they sell, shit that's disgustingly over-salted in order to disguise the taste. Never mind mind that it's grossly unhealthy to eat so much salt, unhealthy to the point of maiming or even killing us. Profits are profits -too bad for your blood pressure. The People That Matter have to have the bucks and are prepared to kill you and your children to get them.

Before we see how the Times reporter for this article fell into Big Food's well-salted trap and got himself bamboozled, let's make the real issue here as clear as we can:

Salt is essential. You need it to live. Salt also enlivens the taste of foods and helps preserve it, among other things. Too much salt will increase the potential for, and exacerbate. hypertension, which is a very dangerous condition. Americans eat too much salt. Way too much salt. The vast majority of that way-too-much salt comes from prepared foods. As the food companies well know, a preference for more heavily salted foods approaches the level of an addiction, which they exploit to boost profits at the expense of your health. The solution is very simple. Either companies must cut back on their abuse of salt in pursuit of profit, or the government must force them to. The End.

Remember: the issue here is abuse of salt. The only issue is consumption of salt in quantities that are clearly unsafe. The issue is not the reasonable application of salt to food. Remember this when you encounter the inevitable industry-sponsored food trolls in comments. It's the abuse, people.

The Times article focuses entirely on Big Food's strategy. In a nutshell:
Since processed foods account for most of the salt in the American diet, national health officials, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Michelle Obama are urging food companies to greatly reduce their use of salt. Last month, the Institute of Medicine went further, urging the government to force companies to do so.

But the industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.
Now, if we had a healthy mainstream media, or, at the very least, reporters trained in the use of that portion of the human anatomy quaintly referred to as the "noggin," the rest of the article would carefully look at the industry's strategies and offer a critique to balance them. But we don't and so, we get this, a truly astounding example of the diversionary tactics deployed by Big Food. I mean, it's not even subtle:
As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

“Salt really changes the way that your tongue will taste the product,” Mr. Kepplinger said. “You make one little change and something that was a complementary flavor now starts to stand out and become objectionable.”

Salt started out more than 5,000 years ago as a simple preservative. But salt and dozens of compounds containing sodium — the element in salt linked to hypertension — have become omnipresent in processed foods from one end of the grocery store to the other.

For example, salt makes 10 appearances on the label for the Hungry-Man roasted turkey dinner, made by the Pinnacle Foods Group, with nine additional references to sodium compounds. The label for Roasted Chicken Monterey, a ConAgra Healthy Choice product, has five references to salt. It makes its most surprising cameo in the accompanying peach dessert, which is flavored with whiskey mixed with salt.

“Without adding the salt, we would be required to carry a liquor license,” explained a ConAgra spokeswoman, Teresa Paulsen.
And the reporter leaves it at that.

Get it? The demonstration is besides the point and utterly worthless. It's a classic straw man. It's a diversion from the real issue. Remember: No one's demanding the removal of "most" of the salt, or "all" of the salt from these products. They are talking about reducing salt to rational levels so that Americans aren't being poisoned by them. Again, the issue is salt abuse. But the reporter spends paragraph after paragraph on a diversion, describing a completely irrelevant series of demonstrations set up by the food industry with not even a single critique of the demo - not one! - elicited from a critic.

There are more problems with the examples. "Light Buttery Crackers" that don't have any butter would present a clear case for false advertising in a rational America, but we just walk on by. Another thing: The article is accurate when it says that heavy salting is being used by the industry to disguise the fact they're using shitty ingredients - in fact, they admit exactly that. In other words, had all those snacks been made with decent-quality stuff instead of garbage, they could easily use less salt in their products.

Later in the article, the industry admits that they could, if they wanted to, reduce their use of salt on the average by 10%. And so they immediately should. Then, a year from now, reduce by another 10%. And the year after that, another 10%, and so on. Remember, the idea is not to eliminate all salt, but to bring the amount of salt down to non-poisonous levels.

Salt is amazing stuff, great stuff, awesome stuff. Read Mark Kurlansky's book if have any doubts about its central place in human history and culture. When I first started taking food seriously, I took several beginning classes. Every chef said exactly the same thing: learning how to properly salt food is one of the trickiest things a cook will learn to do. Once you learn how to focus on its effects, tt is simply astonishing how different levels of salt change the taste of a dish in different ways. Using salt is one of the great, everyday pleasures of cooking, I've learned. When I get it exactly right - very rare - it transforms the good, even the very good, even the very very good, into something truly memorable.

No one, least of all me, is against the generous use of salt in food. There is one helluva difference between that and wholesale abuse. One of these days, the Times will send a reporter to cover the food industry who understands that. This time, they didn't, and - much to the amusement of Big Food, I'm sure - the reporter fell for the very tactic, diversion, he was aware they were using.

PS: Alton Brown's role as a shill for Cargill salt products is one more successful diversion the reporter fell for. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue. Again, that issue is salt abuse by companies manufacturing prepared foods, not salt use in home cooking. The Salt 101 website is only about home cooking (and a 6th grade level intro to the chemistry of salt).

Once again, amateur cooks adding salt is not the problem - in fact, most American home cooks usually under-salt, say all the chefs I've taken classes from. The problem lies with prepared foods, where we get, according to the article, 80% of our daily intake of salt - and that daily intake is typically far above the recommended amount. To the people that manufacture this crap, "smarter salting" doesn't mean someone experimenting with adding salt as a topping for chocolate-covered cookies. It simply means heavier salting, to the point of seriously sickening us. Big profits for Big Food depend upon the sacrifice of your health.

Brown's touting of a particular brand of kosher and sea salt has nothing to do with this problem. However, it certainly behooves Brown not to duck the issue: Salt abuse by the prepared food industry is helping to kill people. He, and all other food celebs worth their...well, you know.... understand exactly what the problem is, even if the Times doesn't. And they need to speak out.

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