Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Consumers ignorant of first functional food: salt

Marketers would have us believe that the self-selecting online community is composed of above average intelligence information sponges, perhaps suffering info overload, but certainly well informed. A recent poll suggests otherwise. Last week, A.C. Nielsen reported results of an online survey of 21,261 “regular Internet users” conducted earlier this year asking about their views on functional foods. Not too surprisingly, pollsters found consumers skeptical of food manufacturers’ health claims for foods. I’m sure they’d also be skeptical about carrots and broccoli, much less foods engineered or fortified to provide additional health benefits. U.S. consumers, incidentally, were far more accepting of enhanced foods than Europeans or the global sample. But can we believe the pollsters? A look at the poll details suggests they may be wrong. The survey asked whether consumers used functional foods. The first “functional food,” many know, is salt fortified with potassium iodide or potassium iodate. American salt producers began adding iodine to salt in the 1920s in the U.S. and Switzerland to prevent goiters and mental retardation. Salt iodization has been promoted heavily since then; it was UNICEF’s top children’s health initiative in the 1990s. Iodizing salt is the public health community’s preferred choice because it is very inexpensive and iodine-fortifying salt changes neither the taste nor food properties of the salt. Unless they read the label on the container, consumers cannot know whether the salt is iodized or not – except in those countries which require ALL table salt to be iodized (e.g. Canada). In the U.S., 70% of table salt is iodized – that percentage has been stable for several generations. That means more than two out of three “round cans” purchased are iodized and it follows, since salt is consumed, on average, in a relatively narrow range, that about seven in ten consumers are using iodized salt. U.S. consumers told pollsters, however, that only 3 in 10 were using iodized salt, 30% – a somewhat lower percentage than globally (33%). Almost more shockingly, when the U.S. and Canada were combined, only 24% reported using iodized salt – despite the fact that all Canadian table salt is iodized. Since the Salt Institute collects comprehensive market statistics, the certain conclusion is respondents knowledge is the exact reverse of the dictum that “the customer is always right.” It's quite discouraging that there are 70% who claim not to be using iodized salt when actually 70% Americans and virtually all Canadians DO use iodized salt. What is more discouraging is that these erring respondents go on to prove just how clueless they are. Asked about why they chose plain salt over iodized salt, 35% doubted that iodine-fortified salt was any healthier (obviously none were endocrinologists! Iodized salt is the consensus public health solution for iodine deficiency). An additional 17% said they didn’t like the taste of iodized salt (fact: the iodine has no taste whatsoever); 6% said the fortified salt is too expensive (fact: it’s sold at retail for exactly the same price as plain salt); 5% said it wasn’t available where they shop (check this out yourself: iodized salt is always available even if plain salt isn’t) and, finally, 1% complained of poor quality (I won’t even dignify that with an answer). Bottom line: consumers mistakenly think they’re not using iodized salt and provide nonsensical reasons for their fallacious opinions. Why? Could the answer be as simple as the likelihood that “regular Internet users” aren’t as well-informed as previously thought? In mid-19th century U.S. politics, the "American Party" was nicknamed the "Know Nothings." They had nothing on Americans in the Nielsen Poll. For more on iodized salt, see http://www.saltinstitute.org/37.html.

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