Alton Brown and saltSalty dog Alton Brown

The biggest loser in Michael Moss’s New York Times exposé of the food industry’s fight against salt restrictions isn’t the food industry. It isn’t government, either. In my view, the real loser is television chef Alton Brown:

With salt under attack for its ill effects on the nation’s health, the food giant Cargill kicked off a campaign last November to spread its own message.

“Salt is a pretty amazing compound,” Alton Brown, a Food Network star, gushes in a Cargill video called Salt 101. “So make sure you have plenty of salt in your kitchen at all times.”

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The campaign by Cargill, which both produces and uses salt, promotes salt as “life enhancing” and suggests sprinkling it on foods as varied as chocolate cookies, fresh fruit, ice cream and even coffee. “You might be surprised,” Mr. Brown says, “by what foods are enhanced by its briny kiss.”

As they say on SNL, “Really, Alton? REALLY?!

The Salt 101 website (which appears as a set of full-screen videos of Brown gushing over the history, utility, and value of salt) is a high-end sales pitch for Diamond table salt. And as we all know, there’s “nothing wrong” with table salt. However, and despite industry efforts to the contrary, the current controversy over salt isn’t about table salt. The debate is over the various forms of and high amounts of salt in processed food, without which Big Food’s brilliant creations tend toward flavors that food scientists refer to as “warmed over,” “cardboard,” or — wait for it — “damp dog hair.”

But let’s not let Brown off the hook quite yet. He is welcome to cash anyone’s check he chooses — and certainly food company ads pay for Brown’s Food Network shows. But at a certain point, you have to recognize when you’re being used as a pawn in a larger battle. Brown, for all his expertise on the science of the kitchen, comes off as woefully ignorant about the politics of food.

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I have now spent more time talking about Alton Brown than Michael Moss did. The true heft of the article comes from Moss’s exhaustive examination of the lengths the food industry will go to to defend what it sees as a crucial, “life-enhancing” ingredient. Without salt, the processed food industry can’t exist, expert after expert testifies. This has, of course, been true for several thousand years. Salting food is one of the oldest forms of preservation and was instrumental in the rise of many an ancient empire (see Mark Kurlansky).

But the empire at risk now is based not on military might or territorial conquest, but on salt-infused delights such as Cheez-Its, Lunchables, and Campbells Chicken Soup.

This particular battle has been going on for decades. What’s most interesting about it is the ways the food industry has changed its arguments based on the prevailing mood and available data. As Moss describes it, in the 1970s the food industry concentrated on undermining the very science behind the health risks of high salt intake, claiming the research was inconclusive and insufficient.

Then, as the data became too overwhelming, the industry switched to an economic argument — that less salt would require higher-quality ingredients, and thus higher prices for the consumer. Lately, the industry has switched back to sidestepping the science, now claiming that an overall caloric intake reduction of 100 calories per day would have far greater public health benefits than a simple reduction in salt intake. But the goal of all these tactics is the same: to avoid having to use less salt in their products.

What Moss doesn’t mention is that the industry’s use of such a defensive strategy is not limited to salt. Whether for soda taxes, television advertising, package labeling, or school food, the industry has a playbook based entirely on the idea of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt among its critics as well as its customers.

And the executives involved are often, if not always, fully aware of what they have been doing. Robert I-San Lin, the former head of R&D at Frito-Lay, told Moss that he had been “caught between corporate and public interests.” Despite awareness of the health risks of salt dating back to the ’70s, companies such as Frito-Lay ignored the data and engaged in a set of “diversionary tactics” to hold off regulation:

Scientists testifying for the snack industry at a government hearing warned that lower salt consumption could pose certain health risks to children and pregnant women. The food industry also challenged the link between salt and hypertension, emphasizing studies that found no significant correlation.

…In what Dr. Lin says was an attempt to divert attention from salt, records show, Frito-Lay also financed research on whether calcium might negate the harmful effects of salt, even though Dr. Lin said he doubted it would really absolve salt. “An effective promotion of ‘Calcium Antihypertension Theory’ may release the pressure on sodium for the time being,” Dr. Lin wrote in a memo at the time.

This occurred in 1978, but it could have been yesterday.

Dr. Lin is on to something. Given their long history of mischief, we likely can’t end food companies’ misinformation campaigns; Michelle Obama and the other architects of the Let’s Move anti-obesity initiative should thus study this salt saga carefully. Any industry that will fight so tenaciously to preserve high levels of salt in their products will, I think, prove fickle partners in the fight against obesity.

Despite what free-marketers like to say, there is indeed an unbridgeable gap between corporate and public interests (BP, anyone?). If the government is this easily swayed by corporate pressure, who exactly is there left to look out for us? It’s time that the government stops catching cold every time Big Food sneezes.