The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced it will begin an initiative later this year which would eventually lead to legal limits on the amount of sodium allowed in food. The FDA plan would be phased in over ten years and would not be voluntary.
The decision follows an announcement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who plans to force a reduction of the sodium intake of New Yorkers through an opt-in program for restaurants and cafes as part of the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI). The NSRI’s voluntary guidelines, if followed, would reduce salt consumption by an estimated 20 percent over the next five years.
Morton Satin, director for technical and regulatory affairs at the Salt Institute, said the limits announced by the FDA and Bloomberg are a bad idea.
“These limits are based upon a population approach to health risks. That is, instead of focusing on people who are sensitive to salt and treating them to eliminate their risk, you assume the whole population is sick or sensitive, and by reducing salt consumption you hope to reduce everyone’s risk a bit,” said Satin.
Satin said although models may project savings in lives and dollars as resulting from this reduced risk, the approach is flawed because it ignores other food consumption risks.
“Because these are statistical models, you can never apply a preventative population approach when there is the slightest possibility of unintended consequences,” Satin said. “The results can be disastrous. We have seen this with the population-wide reduction in fat intake over the last three decades, which ushered in the obesity crisis.”
Blood Pressure and Potassium
Satin notes the actual clinical data are mixed and not focused on overall health outcomes but simply on blood pressure (BP) reduction, which he claims is very small and has not proved sustainable.
“Many scientists think that the BP issue is more a result of low potassium intakes rather than high sodium. The salt-reduction program focuses on a single magic bullet rather than a more balanced and more effective approach of promoting the much greater consumption of salads, vegetables, and fruits, the key sources of potassium,” Satin said. “For example, Italians eat 40 percent more salt than Americans but have better cardiovascular performance because they eat more salads, veggies, and fruits.”
Daniel Compton, a policy analyst with the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, says the FDA decision is another “nanny state” incursion into personal choices.
“This reinforces the dangerous precedent that it is a proper function of government to take an active role in preventing individuals from engaging in activities that may be detrimental to our health,” Compton said. “This sort of precedent is already in operation in our current drug policy, and it would be even more disturbing to see it extended to encompass our own dinner tables.”
Compton notes the enormous disparity in sales between regular foods and their low-sodium counterparts as a testament to U.S. consumers’s preference for salty foods.
“Anyone who has ever opened a bag of potato chips understands this,” Compton said. “Even if it is the case that high sodium intake is detrimental to our health, that fact alone is in no way justification for the government to step in and prevent us from enjoying the foods we choose to eat.”
Compton predicts these regulations would force food manufacturers to jump through more bureaucratic hoops and that the mandate’s reduction of use in salt’s capacity as a preservative could lead to food-poisoning problems.
“If salt reductions were required, one of two things would occur: Spoilage rates would increase, or other preservatives would need to be substituted to maintain current spoilage rates,” said Compton. “In either case, costs would increase, and there is no other preservative that might be substituted that has an 8,000-year track record of human testing under its belt.”
Consumption Already Much Lower
According to Satin, salt is not as bad as the FDA and Bloomberg would like you to think.
“We are dealing with a scientific issue—there is no room for dogma, and good intentions will not change the science,” said Satin. “If there was a clear case for salt reduction, no one would be arguing, but the data is all over the map. In fact we are now consuming about half of what we did a century ago, mainly because of the switch from salt to refrigeration as the main means of food preservation.”
Satin maintains some scientists are exaggerating the importance of the limited data they have on BP and salt.
“All of this year’s publications predicting the lives and billions saved are not based on new data,” Satin said. “It is reworked old data and old assumptions that have been discredited. The new models will not bring more quality to the original old data.”
Ideological matters aside, Satin notes the lack of a strong scientific basis to justify intervention invites irresponsible abuses of power.
“The salt and health debate has become an embarrassment to science. Instead of getting more and better data and evidence, scientists are casting insults at one another trying to discredit opposing opinions,” said Satin. “And if the government gets it wrong, people will suffer the consequences.
“The biggest ingredient missing in the salt and health debate is science,” he added.
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.