Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Audacity of Scientific Hope: PepsiCo Shows How to Bend the Curve for Better Health

Salt is tasty, but too much of it is bad for you. Americans ingest way too much salt, but it's hard to cut back. So who is going to help? How will we "bend the curve" on salt consumption, and thus "bend the curve" for better health? How will we lower costs for high blood pressure and heart disease? Science might bring us the answer, although PepsiCo, which financed some of the science, deserves credit, too.

A March 2009 press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the case in strong terms:

Most Americans consume more than double the amount of their daily recommended level of sodium. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 2 out of 3 adults are in population groups that should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium. During 2005-2006 the estimated average intake of sodium for persons in the United States age 2 years and older was 3,436 mg per day.

A diet high in sodium increases the risk of having higher blood pressure, a major cause for heart disease and stroke. These diseases are the first and third leading causes of death in the United States.

“It’s important for people to eat less salt. People who adopt a heart healthy eating pattern that includes a diet low in sodium and rich in potassium and calcium can improve their blood pressure,” said Darwin R. Labarthe, M.D., Ph.D., director of the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. “Reducing sodium intake can prevent or delay increases in blood pressure for everyone.’’

These are sobering points: The average American consumes more than twice the recommended amount of salt, and excess salt greatly raises the danger of heart disease. We might wonder: What will increased heart disease do to the cost projections of Obamacare?

Mindful of these dangers, as well as these costs, governments have been pushing lower salt intake for a long time, but there's been plenty of pushback from American consumers. People like salt. Or, more precisely, they like the taste of salt on food. So the challenge is to keep the taste, but lose the salt--at least most of it. And now, perhaps, PepsiCo has figured out how to do just that.

In a Wall Street Journal, piece headlined, "PepsiCo Develops 'Designer Salt' to Chip Away at Sodium Intake," Betsy McKay offers a peek into scientific research to reduce salt intake without reducing the enjoyability of food. As McKay explains:

Working with scientists at about a dozen academic institutions and companies in Europe and the U.S., PepsiCo studied different shapes of salt crystals to try to find one that would dissolve more efficiently on the tongue. Normally, only about 20% of the salt on a chip actually dissolves on the tongue before the chip is chewed and swallowed, and the remaining 80% is swallowed without contributing to the taste, said Dr. Khan, who oversees PepsiCo's long-term research.

PepsiCo wanted a salt that would replicate the traditional "salt curve," delivering an initial spike of saltiness, then a body of flavor and lingering sensation, said Dr. Yep, who joined the company in June 2009 from Swiss flavor company Givaudan SA.

"We have to think of the whole eating experience—not just the physical product, but what's actually happening when the consumer eats the product," Dr. Yep explained.

The result was a slightly powdery ingredient that tastes like regular salt.

Thus a lesson: Science offers the prospect of making the problem go away without a political fight. That is, science can change an unhealthy and expensive status quo--painlessly.

Of course, if we want to fight over public health issues, we should seek legislation or regulation to change behavior on salt intake, and we'll get a good fight. But of course, incumbent politicians should remember that such fights should not be started too often, because public patience with fight-starters has a way of wearing thin. Instead, if we want actually to improve public health, we should look to science to see if it's possible to change the equation, so that harmful things are no longer so harmful.

PepsiCo has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this effort, and will probably spend billions more to bring this product to market. PespiCo's goal is clear:

By 2015, PepsiCo aims to cut sodium in its salty snacks 25%. "What we want to do with our 'fun for you' products is to make them the healthiest 'fun for you' products," Chairman Indra Nooyi said. "We want our potato chips to be fried in the healthiest oils with the lowest salt."

We will have to see how the various public-health constituencies react to this news. Most likely, the political class will ignore this news, because, looking through their political prism, they have a hard time seeing the value of science. Politicos see transaction. Scientists see transformation.

PepsiCo's new invention will have to survive regulatory scrutiny, of course. And then we'll have to see if consumers like it.

But all Americans should be mindful that if we don't develop these sorts of innovations, we will never get out of the trap of bad public health on the one hand, or a nanny state on the other. Science offers the way out. Science offers hope.

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