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After A Century, A Voice For The U.S. Salt Industry Goes Quiet

The Salt Institute spent decades questioning government efforts to limit Americans' sodium intake. Critics say the institute muddied the links between salt and health. Now it has shut its doors.
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The Salt Institute spent decades questioning government efforts to limit Americans' sodium intake. Critics say the institute muddied the links between salt and health. Now it has shut its doors.

Salt has existed for millions of years. The Salt Institute has existed for just over a century. And now it has dissolved.

The Salt Institute, the voice of the U.S. salt industry, spent decades questioning government efforts to limit Americans' salt consumption. It got a fair amount of publicity over the years — its president, Lori Roman, even appeared on The Colbert Report to point out that people "need salt to live, you cannot survive without it."

But the trade group has been officially shuttered by the salt industry executives that serve on its board of directors.

"The Salt Institute was first established in 1914 and has long advocated the numerous uses and benefits of salt, ranging from winter roadway safety and water quality to health and nutrition," the board said in a statement. "Over the years, the Salt Institute has made a positive impact demonstrating the essential nature of salt in our daily lives through fact-based information, research studies and educational tools."

The statement didn't reveal why they decided to close now. Roman said that she's no longer speaking for the Salt Institute. NPR reached out to major salt companies like Cargill and Morton Salt, whose employees served on the board. They wouldn't provide any more information, either.

"Cargill is not going to speak on behalf of the Salt Institute about why now and have shared what we can," spokesperson Justin Barber told NPR. Paul Jackiewicz of Morton Salt did allow that the company had no plans to work with any other trade group specifically focused on salt.

The sudden closure was unexpected to some people familiar with the institute.

"I was very surprised because everything was going very well for us," says Morton Satin, who used to be the institute's vice-president of science and research before he retired.

Also surprised was Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which bills itself as America's Food Watchdog.

Jacobson welcomed the news. "My feeling is, good riddance to this organization," he says. "The Salt Institute, as long as I've followed it, for maybe 30 years, has done nothing but muddy the waters about salt and health."

In his view, the institute has worked hard to make people think that "lowering sodium is unnecessary and might even be dangerous."

While there may be "shreds" of evidence that suggest that we shouldn't lower sodium intake, says Jacobson, "that's vastly outweighed by a hundred times more evidence that we should. And that's why there have been calls for government policies to reduce sodium levels in food since 1969."

Dick Hanneman, who was the institute's president for about a quarter century, says he doesn't know why it is closing now.

"I'm saddened to learn that it's going away," Hanneman says, "because I thought it served a very useful purpose."

The institute helped states figure out how to best use salt on the nation's roads, says Hanneman. He also recalls that it pushed back on the government's anti-salt campaigns, and even sued the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We approached it not politically, but through the science," says Hanneman, adding that the institute argued for the need for more research on the health effects of salt reduction.

When the group was originally formed as the Salt Producers Association, there were hundreds of independent salt producers, says Hanneman. Later, the name changed and so did the industry, with salt production typically becoming just one division in a much larger chemical or agricultural company.

When Hanneman left the group, it had fewer than a dozen member companies. "So if a few large companies lose interest in it, then the funding goes away," he notes. "My sense of it is that there's a lot of change in the corporate structure of salt companies."

Still, salt itself is here to stay, he says, since "humans continue to eat between 2,400 and 5,500 milligrams of sodium a day."

This is way too much, according to the independent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Just this month, it said adults should eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.

That's about a teaspoon in total — and most of the salt in our diets comes in prepared foods, rather than from the salt shaker on the dinner table. In fact, the major source of sodium for Americans is bread. "It's not that there's so much sodium in a piece of bread, but we eat so many pieces of bread," says Jacobson.

Jacobson initially thought that the timing of the Salt Institute's shutdown meant that it might be linked to that new report from the National Academies. Now he thinks its demise probably reflects the whole food industry getting more realistic about diet and health.

"More and more, companies arebeginning to lower sodium," says Jacobson. "I don't know if we'll ever really find out why it's going out of business, but I think we should be grateful for small favors."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.