Nick Johns from Bournemouth University looks at the power of chef culture and the impact this has had on the use of salt in food
The 1984 discussion paper Proposals for nutritional guidelines for health education in Britain,1 provided a major focus for improving public nutritional awareness, most notably by setting out guidelines for the healthy consumption of fats, sugars and salt. Although subsequent decades have seen considerable progress in improving public awareness about the role of fats and sugars in healthy nutrition, this has been less marked in the case of salt, and there is still confusion about how best to impart information about salt and sodium in foods.2 For instance, Grimes et al. 3 report a survey in which 88% of people were aware of a relationship between salt intake and high blood pressure, but 65% did not correctly identify the relationship between salt and sodium.
Salt consumption in the UK remains well above recommended levels. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) 4 reports that in 2008 average daily sodium intake was 4.3g for UK men and 3.2g for women; respectively 80% and 30% higher than the recommended maximum of 2.4g. About three-quarters of the Dietary Reference Value (DRV) of sodium comes from processed foods and catered meals, largely from added sodium chloride.3 The FSA advocates reducing dietary sodium as part of its strategy to improve public health and is encouraging the British food industry to reduce sodium in processed foods.5 Comparatively little has been undertaken to reduce the impact of catered foods upon dietary salt intake, although there have been studies of salt in institutional catering.6 In 1984 it might have been argued that dining out had little overall impact on the national diet, but since that date there have been three significant developments in the influence of both restaurants and chefs on the British diet.
Firstly, a chef-oriented food culture has appeared, in which many chefs have become celebrities and chefs have become regarded as authorities on food and food preparation.7 Thus chef culture is very much in the public eye. Celebrity chefs, and their cooking styles are widely featured in the media, and their authority extends vicariously to all chefs. Celebrity chefs are also increasingly associated with food ingredients and prepared meals sold in supermarkets.8 Thus chef culture and chefs' authority is covertly enlarging its scope to include not only the preparation of those types of food known as "fine dining" but all food, and not only the aesthetics of food but its other characteristics, including nutritional properties.
Secondly, due to a variety of social and economic factors, the proportion of meals eaten outside the home has increased, as well as the volume of pre-prepared meals eaten in the home.9,10 This has strengthened the influence of chefs and chef culture on eating generally and the effect has been reinforced by an increase in TV programmes featuring celebrity chefs preparing meals from scratch. Thus chef culture and chef authority extends to all aspects of home food preparation, including cooking from basic ingredients.7,8
Thirdly, the training of chefs has been restructured and in the redesign of courses, much specific nutrition content has been removed.11 As a result there is no good reason to suppose that chefs know any more about nutrition than the general public.
A recent study12 found that chefs were more aware of the dangers of fat than salt to health and that they were as confused about food sodium labelling as the consumers studied by Grimes et al. …