By now we’ve all heard about San Francisco’s Election Day decision to ban Happy Meals. And amid the usual ridicule, the line “only in San Francisco” no doubt emerged as the city once again shredded its credibility by embracing namby-pamby politics.
So here’s my question: Is New York City challenging San Francisco as the capital of Nannyland?
This week the city’s health department announced the release of a new ad campaign targeting a single ingredient: salt. Yes, that’s right, the city thinks the savory stuff is so bad that they’re spending six-figures to warn residents about this dreaded ingredient that has been essential to cooking for centuries.
The ad features a can of soup with mounds of salt pouring out from it. Really? So soup is now a public health threat? Maybe the city health commissioner has been watching too many Seinfeld reruns. (The amount of salt he wants New Yorkers to eat amounts to less than two-thirds of a teaspoon daily.)
Of course, it wouldn’t be a truly New York campaign without a nice shake of hypocrisy. Billionaire NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who some think will mount an independent bid for president in 2012) absolutely loves salt. Probably more so than the average New Yorker. According to the New York Times, Bloomberg reaches mouth-burning levels of salt on his popcorn and even adds salt as an extra pizza topping.
But forgetting the obvious “do as I say, not as I do” discussion, there’s no significant scientific evidence that reducing our sodium intake will make us any healthier.
Dr. Michael Alderman, editor of the American Journal of Hypertension, recently noted that almost half of the observational studies of salt intake and heart attacks or stroke found no association between salt and health. He thinks NYC’s ingredient tinkering amounts to “an experiment on a whole population.”
And a recent study in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that our brains naturally regulate our appetite for salt, meaning that for every spoonful of soy sauce people add to their food, their bodies go for less salty stuff later on.
But science isn’t exactly the Bloomberg administration’s strongest point in its constant scolding of what citizens choose to eat.
In some ways this anti-salt push is a step down from last year’s Big Apple ad campaign showing a man downing a soft drink — which turned into liquid lard. “Don’t drink yourself fat,” the ad warned.
But recently uncovered internal e-mails show that the city’s health commissioner received heavy criticism from nutrition experts — including some in his own department — before releasing this over-the-top gross-out ad.
One advisor warned: “CAUTION. As we get into this exacting science, the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd.” A Columbia University doctor cautioned that the ad was “misleading in that there is no reference to energy output changes.”
These experts all recognize the fact that calories from soft drinks are the same as calories from milk, juice, or bread. And calories from sugary beverages don’t make up that much of the average person’s diet — just 5.5 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.
In the end, one nutritionist put it most succinctly: “What can we get away with?” That turned out to be the department’s guiding parameter over nutritional reality.
And where is Mayor Bloomberg in all of this soft drink mixed messaging? The cafeteria at his own company provides free soda to its employees. And I’ll bet there are some salt shakers available for your pepperoni and mushroom pizza.
Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.