SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a trade group that's been around for over 100 years, almost as long as B.J. Leiderman has done our theme music. The Salt Institute has represented the U.S. salt industry, which sells everything from the salt strewn on icy roads to the salt sprinkled on your food. The Salt Institute shuts down March 31. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce wanted to find out why.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Earlier this month, Michael Jacobson happened to look at the website of the Salt Institute. And he saw a startling announcement.
MICHAEL JACOBSON: I was surprised as anybody to see that this century-old trade association was going out of business.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so how did you feel about it?
JACOBSON: I felt great.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jacobson is co-founder of Center for Science in the Public Interest, which calls itself America's food watchdog. He says Americans eat too much salt, which can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. And he says, for years, the Salt Institute has attacked studies that support reducing salt while promoting studies that suggest less salt could be dangerous.
JACOBSON: 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.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He once was invited to go head-to-head with the Salt Institute on "The Colbert Report." Colbert asked the Salt Institute president Lori Roman about this idea that salt can be bad for you.
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STEPHEN COLBERT: All of these high-falutin medical organizations are saying that salt is, like - just pack a gun with salt and fire it through your brain.
LORI ROMAN: Well, I think the food police are maybe practicing a little police brutality this time because, unlike some of the other products they've targeted in the past, you need salt to live. You cannot survive without it. It's the reason why...
COLBERT: More than that, if you eat enough salt, you'll corn yourself like a beef, and you'll live forever, right?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked Lori Roman about the institute's closure. She would only send me a statement from its board of directors. It said the Salt Institute had helped the public understand the essential nature of the product but gave no explanation. The members of the board of directors work for major salt companies like Morton Salt, Cargill, Compass Minerals. I reached out to them. They basically gave me zero information. So I called Dick Hanneman. He was president of the Salt Institute for about a quarter century.
DICK HANNEMAN: I'm saddened to learn that it's going away because I thought it served a very useful purpose.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it worked on important issues, like how to best use salt on the nation's roads. And as far as nutrition went, he says they pushed back on the government's anti-salt campaigns, even sued the Department of Health and Human Services.
HANNEMAN: So we approached it not politically but through the science by trying to point out the - one, the weakness of the argument in the '60s and '70s on which the policy was taken and then on the need for more science.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says when the group was formed as the Salt Producers Association in 1914, there were hundreds of salt producers. Later, the name changed, and so did the industry. Eventually, the group had fewer than a dozen member companies.
HANNEMAN: So if a few large companies lose interest in it, then the funding goes away.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He doesn't know what machinations led to its closing. But he says salt itself is here to stay.
HANNEMAN: Humans continue to eat between 2,400 and 5,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And 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 total. But remember, most salt comes in prepared foods rather than from your salt shaker. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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