On the Side: Take this gimmick with a grain of salt

I wasn't sure what the salt shaker was for at first.

It came in the mail with a pepper shaker, and it had an I N.Y. logo on it.

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Salt and pepper shakers from The Center for Consumer Freedom.

It was sent by an outfit called The Center for Consumer Freedom.

With an ecru-colored gift card.

"Congratulations!", it said, "You're now on the cutting edge of New York City culinary culture."

Then the card got down to business: It said that if New York Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden put in place his 10-year plan to remove 50 percent of the salt "from all restaurant meals," two things would happen.

I thought it was going to say good things - like blood-pressure levels would generally head south, and tens of thousands of heart attacks and strokes could be avoided.

After all, that's the impetus behind the campaign, which is based, as you might have read, on evidence the American Medical Association calls "overwhelming."

Most of us consume twice as much salt as we need, and most of that - up to 75 percent - doesn't come from a shaker at all.

It's hidden in processed foods, cheeseburgers, and the pork chops you get at the Macaroni Grill.

The last couple at-bats for Frieden have been pretty awesome: He put the heat on trans fats (which cause heart and diabetes problems), getting them out of the kitchen.

And he ordered fast-food joints to post calorie counts so you can have a clue about what you're ordering. (A spin-off law is to take effect in Philadelphia soon.)

But I was wrong. The Center for Consumer Freedom's message wasn't about good things. It was about two bad, if wildly improbable things.

First, eating out was going to get "pretty bland," it said. Second, New Yorkers are, ahem, going to have to pack their own shakers.

It said Frieden, emboldened by his trans-fat win, had set his sights on salt, "which the human body actually needs to function properly."

Didn't he know that people have been adding salt to their foods for more than 4,000 years! (Didn't the center know that nobody was talking about confiscating salt!)

Unmentioned, of course, was that men are taking in close to 50 percent more salt now than they did only 30 years ago; for women, it's 69 percent more.

So I called up The Center for Consumer Freedom, whose Web site asks: "Can organic groceries be hazardous to your health?"

I got David Martosko, the research director.

Are you guys some sort of grassroots salt-huggers?

Well, the center wasn't really founded by consumers, he said; it was a "business-proposed group."

Oh, what kind of businesses would that be?

I'd rather not characterize them.

C'mon.

Well, food and beverage companies, restaurants and food marketers.

Such as?

Well, there are a lot of chain restaurants.

Like who?

The companies don't want their names out in public.

Can you give me just one.

OK, Outback Steakhouse.

Which is, in the end, the perfect metaphor. Just as high salt levels in fast food are hard to detect, the hand of the food chains themselves is hard to detect behind the phony banner of "consumer freedom."

As the salt wars heat up who do you think, finally, is going to give you the straighter skinny?

The chief public-health doctor for the country's biggest city?

Or a mouthpiece for Outback Steakhouse?

With a salt-shaker stunt.

 


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.