Posted on Mon, June 14, 2010 by Intern
4 Comments | Categories: Labeling, News, Current Events, Policy,
by intern Christine Binder
Over the past few months, there’s been a lot of talk about reducing the amount of salt in the U.S. food supply. Government officials, NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg, and the First Lady have all been asking food companies to voluntarily cut back the amount of salt they use. Some companies have complied, but there’s also been a lot of industry pushback, especially because the Institute of Medicine is recommending that the government create regulations for the amount of salt allowed in products. The New York Times recently published an excellent exposé of the food industry’s reactions to these potential salt restrictions.
So why is salt such a big deal? It’s because the stakes are so high, both for the health of the American people and the sales of the food and restaurant industry. Excess sodium consumption is a risk factor for high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, heart failure, kidney disease, and stroke – some of the biggest killers in America. Even though rates of hypertension are higher in certain populations, it is still a really big problem for everyone across the board. One third of American adults have hypertension, and another third have pre-hypertension. Rates of high blood pressure have been increasing even in children and adolescents.
Back in April, the Institute of Medicine came out with a report on reducing sodium intake in the U.S. The report asserted that forty years of salt reduction initiatives – focused mostly on consumer education and voluntary salt reduction by the food industry – have failed. Americans still eat 50% more sodium than the 2,300 milligram maximum recommended daily intake for healthy adults. Health experts estimate that a significant decrease in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives annually.
Here’s the most important thing you’ll learn about salt today: only 11% of the sodium that we eat comes from the salt shakers in our kitchens or on our tables, but a whopping 77% of it comes from processed foods and restaurant foods. Why so much salt? Food industry scientists say that without salt, processed food tastes like “cardboard” and “damp dog hair.” Adding lots of salt is the cheapest and easiest way to make it palatable.
This bodes well for those who have the time and resources to cook from scratch, but since most Americans depend on grocery stores and restaurants, the salt problem needs to be addressed on the population level, not just the individual level. Marion Nestle, who blogs frequently about salt, would “like the default to be a lower salt environment.” Should it really be this difficult for people to avoid excess sodium? I’m all in favor of moving towards a food system where making the healthy choice is the easy one, not the hard one.