The enemy within

Sodium. It’s found in just about every item of food. We consume too much of it. And now, schools and manufacturers are tasked with reducing it in meals. But is the USDA pushing too hard too fast to cut the salt?

Published in FSD Update

What do cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and salt have in common? They are all being regulated in some way by the U.S. government due to their potential negative effects on health.

Few people would argue that we consume too much salt—a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 90% of teenagers and adults in this country consumed more than the recommended amount of sodium. But how bad is salt anyway? It has many useful attributes, food safety and taste chief among them. So where do you draw the line between helpful and harmful?

The USDA is attempting to ascertain this as it pertains to school meals. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is trying to address the sodium problem by calling for three reductions during a period of 10 years. The first of these goes into effect this fall. The USDA estimates that schools will have to cut salt between 5 percent and 10 percent to comply with the initial salt step-down. By the time the third cut comes into place in school year 2022-2023, the USDA estimates schools will have had to reduce sodium between 25 percent and 50 percent to comply.

“The first [reduction] is reasonable. It’s the steps after that are concerning,” says Amy Virus, manager of administrative and support services for the School District of Philadelphia.

Virus’ sentiments were echoed by many directors, many of whom knew cutting back on sodium would eventually be asked of them. Because of this, many directors have spent the last five or so years finding ways to cut the salt.

A hot situation

Wendy Weyer, R.D., director of nutrition services at Seattle Public Schools, has already achieved the reductions needed for the first cut. She attributes much of that success to the fact that Washington state had already put into place regulations for sodium reduction, which gave her the time to gradually reduce the sodium in her meals.

“When I looked at target one, I thought we were already there and felt good about our success moving forward,” Weyer says. “I know a lot of other states weren’t there.”

That doesn’t mean cutting the salt was easy. The district has used herbs to make foods more palatable. But it’s also had to remove items, some of which were popular, like hot sauce.

“Hot sauce is one of those items that years ago our students were using by the gallon,” she recalls. “They were putting it on top of everything. A lot of our students who came from foreign countries really used that condiment. You’ve got to factor that into your overall nutritional analysis.”

When Weyer removed the condiment seven or eight years ago, it wasn’t received favorably by students. “It was not popular,” she says. “Students still talk about it. We’ve heard students are hiding hot sauce in their pockets and bringing it into the cafeteria. It’s concerning that we’re training kids to have hot sauce and shakers in their pockets to enhance the food we are serving.”

Hot sauce is also an issue in Cincinnati Public Schools. One of the district’s most popular vegetables is mixed greens, which includes spinach, collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens. Why is it so popular? It’s served with a packet of hot sauce, which is typically high in sodium.

“We’re working to find a lower sodium hot sauce,” says Jessica Shelly, food services director. “Here I have kids who are eating a half cup to a cup of dark leafy greens, happily. You take away that hot sauce packet and they aren’t going to eat it. We’re really throwing out the baby with the bathwater there because we’re so afraid of the sodium in a packet of hot sauce. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. When you take things away from the kids, that’s when they begin to notice.”

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