Salt licked?

Salt shakers. Image from Daily MailSalt shakers. Image from Daily Mail

UPDATE: See the detailed response below from Peter of Gateshead Council, which clarifies, corrects and expands upon some of the spin given by the Mail articles. The new shakers were supplied to the chip shop staff for use behind the counter: “Our main concern was around the amount of salt put on by staff seasoning food on behalf of customers before wrapping it up… Our observations… confirmed that customers were receiving about half of the recommended daily intake of salt in this way. We piloted some reduced hole versions with local chip shops who all found that none of their customers complained about the reduced saltiness.”

A number of councils in England have given fish & chip shops replacement salt shakers with fewer holes – from the Daily Mail:

Research has suggested that slashing the holes from the traditional 17 to five could cut the amount people sprinkle on their food by more than half.

And so at least six councils have ordered five-hole shakers – at taxpayers’ expense – and begun giving them away to chip shops and takeaways in their areas. Leading the way has been Gateshead Council, which spent 15 days researching the subject of salty takeaways before declaring the new five-hole cellars the solution.

Officers collected information from businesses, obtained samples of fish and chips, measured salt content and ‘carried out experiments to determine how the problem of excessive salt being dispensed could be overcome by design’. They decided that the five-hole pots would reduce the amount of salt being used by more than 60 per cent yet give a ‘visually acceptable sprinkling’ that would satisfy the customer.

OK. This is interesting. This is where the unit bias, defaults, libertarian paternalism and industrial design come together, in the mundanity of everyday interaction. It’s Brian Wansink’s ‘mindless margin’ being employed strategically, politically – and just look at the reaction it’s got from the public (and from Littlejohn). A BBC story about a similar initiative in Norfolk also gives us the industry view:

A spokesman for the National Federation of Fish Friers called the scheme a “gimmick” and said customers would just shake the containers more.

Graham Adderson, 62, who owns the Downham Fryer, in Downham Market, said: “I think the scheme is hilarious. If you want to put salt on your fish and chips and there are only four holes, you’re just going to spend longer putting more on.”

I’m assuming Gateshead Council’s research took account of this effect, although there are so many ways that users’ habits could have been formed through prior experience that this ‘solution’ won’t apply to all users. There might be some customers who always put more salt on, before even tasting their food. There might be people who almost always think the fish & chips they get are too heavily salted anyway – plenty of people, anecdotally at least, used to buy Smith’s Salt ‘n’ Shake and not use the salt at all.

And there are probably plenty of people who will, indeed, end up consuming less salt, because of the heuristic of “hold salt shaker over food for n seconds” built up over many years of experience.

Overall: I actually quite like this idea: it’s clever, simple, and non-intrusive, but I can see how the interpretation, the framing, is crucial. Clearly, when presented in the way that the councils media have done here (as a government programme to eliminate customer choice, and force us all down the road decided by health bureaucrats), the initiative’s likely to elicit an angry reaction from a public sick of a “nanny state” interfering in every area of our lives. Politicians jumping on the Nudge bandwagon need to be very, very careful that this isn’t the way their initiatives are perceived and portrayed by the press (and many of them will be, of course): it needs to be very, very clear how each such measure actually benefits the public, and that message needs to be given extremely persuasively.

Final thought: Many cafés, canteens and so on have used sachets of salt, that customers apply themselves, for many years. The decision made by the manufacturers about the size of these portions is a major determinant of how much salt is used, because of the unit bias (people assume that one portion is the ‘right’ amount), and, just as with washing machine detergent, manipulation of this portion size could well be used as part of a strategy to influence the quantity used by customers. But would a similar salt sachet strategy (perhaps driven by manufacturers rather than councils) have provoked similar reactions? I’m not sure that it would. ‘Nanny manufacturer’ is less despised than ‘nanny state’, I think, certainly in the UK.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Salt licked?”

  1. I’d say the far greater number of holes was a design fault if the shaker was designed for public use.

    It requires more skill and practice to control the dose with more holes than fewer. But then again, larger doses take longer with fewer holes.

    Which is more important? Time and motion taken to add a standard moderate dose of salt (risking too much in inexperienced hands), or control and precision in the size of dose?

    I’d say the fewer holes empowers the public with greater precision. It does not mislead them into reducing their salt intake. They can usually tell how much salt is coming out by sight (subject to good lighting and vision), and can still obtain a heavy dose if that’s their bag.

    On a tangent, I recently visited a restaurant where some bright spark must have considered it a funky fashion statement to have salt emitted from a quincunx and pepper from a single hole (via apparently traditional dispensers).

    On the matter of crisps, I’m dismayed at the obsession with reducing fat content at the expense of flavour. Once upon a time Walkers made ‘Pan Cooked Double Crunch’ crisps (double the fat too), and now they use some godawful low fat process for their standard issue, probably involving a high speed, high temperature aerosol frying process where the potato slices never see any pan or deep fat, but are blown from spud intake hopper to boxed bags in 30 seconds at the rate of 10 tonnes a minute.

    The fat issue is far more nannying than “Use less salt”. We can add salt, but we can’t recook the blighters properly.

    A similar things applies to soft drinks. It’s almost impossible to find anything without Aspartame in it these days, and just decent sugar, or failing that, just unsweetened drinks. They keep on trying misleading descriptions, e.g. ‘No Sugar’ means ‘100% Aspartame sweetened’, and now ‘30% less sugar’ means ‘a bit of sugar, but a lot of Aspartame’. They evidently recognise that a lot of people don’t want aspartame, because they still try and figure out how to trick you into buying the stuff without actually saying it’s full of poorly understood carcinogens and neurotoxins. At least with Nutrasweet you could easily recognise the contamination of a product by the modern equivalent of Soylent Green.

    The emergent attitude is a patronising “We know our customers better than they know themselves. We work hard to ensure they don’t need to worry their little heads with anything that might negatively affect their purchase decision. They can trust us to have their health and safety as our primary concern, often surpassing their tendency toward unhealthy lifestyles and diets.”

    At least it’s still legal to buy salt, sugar, butter, and potatoes in their raw, ‘unsafe’ forms.

  2. Dan
    I manage the team at Gateshead Council that came up with the reduced hole shaker. It has been so badly misrepresented, so frequently, that I’ve set up a google alert to flag up every new mention on the web. Hence my appearance here so shortly after you posted this article.

    We have significant issues in our area with heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. Many of the recent press stories that criticise the shaker say that councils have no role in trying to get better health for people in their areas. In reality, councils play a massive role in improving health and preventing illness in communities, and have done so since their inception.

    With regard to the salt shaker project, the biggest perception problems have been the belief that we did this to ‘control’ the amount of salt people put on their food.

    Our main concern was around the amount of salt put on by staff seasoning food on behalf of customers before wrapping it up. The traditional shaker (which is actually a bakery flour shaker with 17 x 2.5mm diameter holes) puts on 3.3g/second. Our observations in a few chip shops, simulations in the office and a few purchased samples confirmed that customers were receiving about half of the recommended daily intake of salt in this way.

    We piloted some reduced hole versions with local chip shops who all found that none of their customers complained about the reduced saltiness.

    After the successful pilots, we bought enough units for our take away trade and handed them out during routine inspections in 2007. Distributing in this way meant we had the time to explain our findings, demonstrate the different output from the old and new versions and tell them about the experiences of the pilot shops. We didn’t use force or coercion (we have no powers to compel people to use the new model) but we had a 97% voluntary uptake.

    There was no adverse publicity following the roll out in Gateshead, which was completed by autumn 2007. We still haven’t heard anything bad from shops in the area. One of the owners tells us he is buying 60% less salt, and this shows that customers are choosing to put less on themselves.

    Of course we recognised that customers who like salty food will shake for longer, but we weren’t seeking any form of control so accept this. What we didn’t expect was that many of our chip shop owners would want some advisory posters to tell their customers about salt and health, but we were happy to oblige.

    By the end of 2007 we thought this had been a successful project, with nothing but happy clients. How we got from that position to the vehement criticism levelled at us in some of your links is another story, but it won’t put us off doing this sort of thing again.

    You are certainly correct in your statement that “the interpretation, the framing, is crucial.” I think we handled this aspect well last year, but we weren’t in control of the misinterpretations that followed, nor of how those misinterpretations would turn a pretty mundane story into headline news.

  3. As far as reducing the amount of salt in the sachets goes, I imagine it wouldn’t run the risk of “Nanny Manufacturer” accusations. Rather, it would almost certainly run the risk of “Greedy Manufacturer” accusations, unless a concomitant reduction in unit price also occurs. Granted, the population of complainants would be fairly small, restaurant owners mainly (you don’t see too many of those packets in peoples homes).

    We have seen this already with consumer snack packaging. The bag of chips has more air than product in it by volume than it used to; ditto for the candy bar. And people complained about the size reduction by manufacturers in search of better profits.

  4. I don’t see anything wrong with the changes that have been made, particularly in light of Peter’s comments they seem perfectly logical. It’s an interesting point that salt is applied by the staff rather than the customers – effectively people have never had much control over how much salt they had on their food.

    I do wonder how much difference it’s likely to make to public health though. If people are eating fish and chips often enough for this change to have a significant impact on their salt intake, surely their salt intake is the least of your worries?

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone – and thanks to Peter for setting a few things straight. I really shouldn’t get my news from the Daily Mail.

    Overall it sounds like a clever, neat, sensible initiative and I hope, as you say, that media misrepresentations don’t stop you doing similar projects in the future. To be honest it’s pleasing to see a council taking such an initiative. Yes, it can be seen as paternalist, but to some extent isn’t that what councils are for?

    This area of small, targeted ‘intervention design’, addressing specific problems, has massive potential to help people without inconveniencing anyone, and without removing the public’s choice. Though Arkadyevna’s point about the overall health impact of the diet is certainly significant.

    Petronius is right, of course, about the “Greedy manufacturer” label that’s likely to be applied when companies produce smaller pack sizes (or just less contents) and sell them as “healthy portions”. They might be a good idea, but unless there’s a corresponding price reduction, consumers are likely to be cynical, rightly so.

    [On Crosbie’s point about aspartame, I’m another who actively avoids it, partly through (maybe misplaced) suspicion, but primarily because of how vile stuff tastes when sweetened with it. Some manufacturers who went over to adding aspartame to ‘full’ versions of drinks (e.g. Vimto) a few years ago have since reverted to the sugar-only formulation, presumably in response to customer demand?]

  6. With regard to the overall impact of diet on health, it is natural to be concerned that any health benefits from reducing salt from the shakers would be minimal when set against the fat content of take away food.

    The team took a lot of advice from local medical experts who confirmed the significant benefits of reducing salt in the diet. From http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk:

    “It is estimated that reducing salt intake to 6g a day (from 10g a day in the UK) through the effect that this would have on blood pressure, could lead to a 16% reduction in deaths from strokes and a 12% reduction in deaths from coronary heart disease. This would prevent approximately 19,000 stroke and heart attack deaths in the UK each year.”

    When Radio 2 tested the original 17 hole flour shaker against a domestic salt cellar they found that in 15 seconds the domestic cellar dispensed 2g, whereas the flour shaker dispensed 50g. Our 5 hole shakers were designed to cut the average salt dispensed by shop staff from 3.3g to 1.2g.

  7. ‘A social system is a code of laws which men observe in order to live together. Such a code must have a basic principle, a starting point, or it cannot be devised. The starting point is the question: Is the power of society limited or unlimited?

    Individualism answers: The power of society is limited by the inalienable, individual rights of man. Society may make only such laws as do not violate these rights.

    Collectivism answers: The power of society is unlimited. Society may make any laws it wishes, and force them upon anyone in any manner it wishes.’ – Ayn Rand. [Ayn Rand Column, Textbook of Americanism, p 81.]

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