Taxing salt
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 6, 2019 - 12:00am

There’s a term used by the impoverished in this country: nagdidildil ng asin.

It means a person is so poor the only thing he can afford to eat with rice for a day’s meal is salt.

I’m not sure if this is true to this day among the 21 percent of our population classified as poor. 

But I do know that a small amount of salty food can be paired with a lot of rice that fills the stomach and provides enough energy through the day for manual labor such as farming.

Inexpensive salty dishes can be fried dried fish (tuyo, dilis, daing), smoked fish or tinapa, or canned sardines that are sautéed or cooked in an omelet.

In the past years, another source of filling carbohydrates with salty and savory flavor has gained popularity as a Pinoy meal: the instant noodle. A pack good for one meal can be priced below P10.

If a proposal to slap a salt excise tax pushes through, manufacturers are sure to pass on the cost to consumers. As there are few alternatives available, consumers will fork out the additional cost, but will likely continue eating instant noodles regularly.

And Pinoys will continue flavoring a lot of dishes with patis and bagoong, fish sauce and fish paste, even if the prices become as high as those imported from Thailand.

So yes, that proposal from the Department of Health (DOH), although well meaning, is anti-poor. It has generated derisive comments: now they’re going to tax adobo and binagoongan.

The Department of Finance has distanced itself from the proposal, and members of both chambers of Congress have said it would be DOA, dead on arrival in the legislature.

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So how do we wean people away from too much salt? The DOH is also correct in its effort to raise public awareness of the health risks posed by having a salty tooth.

The World Health Organization has warned that high levels of salt or sodium chloride cause high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

These days, health experts are warning that high salt intake is causing a spike in such afflictions worldwide. Equally worrisome, people are developing the chronic illnesses at an earlier age, probably because of junk food.

It’s doubtful though that a salt tax will reduce the consumption of salty foods.

What might work is to encourage food manufacturers to re-formulate their products to reduce the salt content. Or at least to produce low-sodium alternatives, which a number of them are already doing.

Even this, however, has its limits. Consumers who like saltiness will simply reach for the product with regular salt content.

As a new reporter covering what at the time was called the Western Police District in Manila, my favorite lunch was steamed rice with slices of fried Ma Ling pork luncheon meat, cooked in the police canteen near the mobile patrol division. Each slice cost P1 – cheaper than US Spam and a most affordable (and tasty) meal for a young reporter.

Today the sight of fried Ma Ling luncheon meat still makes my mouth water, but I know enough to avoid such food items bursting with salt and carcinogenic nitrites.

Salt, however, is one of the most difficult items to reduce from one’s diet. Salt intensifies flavors; salted caramel items have become widely popular. Potato chips have become even saltier (and pricier) with the addition of salted egg flavor.

Among cooks, there is a tendency to develop an increasing appetite threshold for saltiness. We describe it as sunog na ang dila – a tongue already burned by salt.

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Learning about the health risks posed by too much salt and food preservatives weaned me away from pork luncheon meat and my other comfort food, corned beef.

I still indulge occasionally in corned beef, with the thought that everything is OK in moderation. I can even make my own corned beef, with only salt as preservative, but I guess it’s the carcinogens that give that distinctive corned taste I’m familiar with. As for luncheon meat, I’ve given up Ma Ling completely, but I sample other brands occasionally.

Education is the best tool for encouraging people to eat less salt. It can be difficult to inculcate proper nutrition habits when people are young and think they will live forever. It helps when there’s a member of the family who is ailing and children see the consequences of diets rich in fats, sugar, salt and preservatives.

Among the young, what might work is to warn them of the effects of unhealthy diets on their looks: salt, sugar and cholesterol can cause flab; oily stuff causes skin breakouts.

Regulating salt content in manufactured food products will also help, to a certain extent. The new standards will have to be imposed even on imported items, so this may have to become an internationally coordinated effort to promote public health.

What won’t work is a salt tax.


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