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Salt Institute, Long Industry Industry, Shuts Down: Salted: NPR



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

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

ATU Images / Getty Images

Salt has been around for millions of years. The salt Institute has been around for over a century. And now it's dissolved.

The Salt Institute, the voice of the American salt industry, spent decades questioning the government's efforts to limit the US salt consumption. It's got a lot of publicity over the years – its president, Lori Roman, even came on Colbert Report to point out that people "need salt to live, you can't survive without it."

But the trading group is officially closed by the salt industry leaders who serve on the board.

"The Salt Institute was first established in 1914 and has long told the many uses and benefits of salt, ranging from winter safety and water quality to health and nutrition," the board said in a statement. "The Salt Institute has over the years had a positive influence on showing the salt's essential nature in our daily lives using fact-based information, research studies and training tools."

The statement did not reveal why they decided to close now. Roman said she no longer speaks for the Salt Institute. NPR reached out to large salt companies such as Cargill and Morton Salt, whose employees worked on the board. They would not provide further information either.

"Cargill is not going to speak for the Salt Institute why now and has shared what we can," said Justice Barber to NPR. Paul Jackiewicz from Morton Salt provided the company with no plans to work with any other trading group specifically focused on salt.

The sudden closure was unexpected for some people who were familiar with the institute.

"I was very surprised because everything went really well for us," said Morton Satin, who used to be the institute's vice president of science and research before retiring.

Also surprised was Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the public interest, which counts 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 have followed it, for maybe 30 years, has done nothing but muddy the waters about salt and health."

In his opinion, the institute has worked hard to make people believe that "lowering sodium is unnecessary and perhaps even dangerous."

Although there may be "strips" of evidence suggesting that we should not lower the sodium intake, Jacobson says, "it is much offset by a hundred times more evidence that we should, and therefore there have been calls for public policies to reduce sodium levels in food since 1969. "

Dick Hanneman, who was institute president for about a quarter of a century, says he does not know why it is closing now.

"I'm sorry to learn that it goes away," Hanneman says, "because I thought it worked very well."

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

"We did not approach it politically, but through science," Hanneman says, 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, Hanneman said. Later, the name was changed, and then the industry with salt production typically became only a division in a much larger chemical or agricultural business.

When Hanneman left the group, it had fewer than a dozen member companies. "So if a few big companies lose interest in it, then the funding goes away," he notes. "My feeling is that there are a lot of changes in the corporate business structure."

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

This is too much, according to the independent national academies of science, technology and medicine. Just this month, it said adults should eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.

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

First of all, Jacobson believed that the timing of the salt institute's shutdown meant that it could be linked to the new national academy report. Now he believes that its death probably reflects the entire food industry becoming more realistic about diet and health.

"More and more companies are starting to lower sodium," Jacobson says. "I don't know if we'll ever find out why it goes out of business, but I think we should be grateful for little favors."


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