Salt: Still Killing Americans

Though the FDA vowed to reduce sodium in foods, levels remain the same.
A spoonful of salt makes the blood pressure go up. (SoraZG/Creative Commons)
Apr 24, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

If you ask the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not worth its salt. That's because two years after the Institute of Medicine called on the administration to cut sodium in foods, levels have hardly budged.

...upwards of 100,000 lives could be saved each year if sodium levels in restaurant and packaged foods were cut in half.

In 2010, the FDA made a vow: In an effort to save the 100,000 lives annually that the Institute of Medicine says end early due to salt, the Feds would mandate a reduction of sodium levels in foods. The plan was to phase out sodium slowly so that American palates could acclimate with ease.

Turns out "slowly" meant "not at all." The FDA hasn't made a move. The past two years have added to four previous decades of plugged ears since the Institute first recommended the federal government make changes.

Sick of the lollygagging, CSPI Executive Diretor Michael F. Jacobsen put pen to paper this weekend, writing to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. His letter echoed the same thoughts he made back in 1978, when he first wrote to the FDA to regulate salt levels. 

In his letter, Jacobsen said that upwards of 100,000 lives could be saved each year if sodium levels in restaurant and packaged foods were cut in half. He and CSPI want the FDA to decrease levels of sodium in foods by working with the food industry and health experts to lower mandatory limits as promised.

"There is virtually nothing else the FDA could do to improve America's food supply that would provide a greater benefit to public health than to reduce sodium levels," Jacobson wrote this week. "We urge the FDA to issue strong rules that will protect Americans' health."

High sodium consumption correlates to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.

For the naysayers out there, CSPI has suggestions:

"Besides simply using less salt, companies could replace some of the sodium chloride with potassium chloride, use salt crystals of different sizes and shapes, add herbs and spices, or [salt] just the outside or surface of foods."

Obvious health benefits aside, a reduction is also a wise move financially.

CSPI says that direct medical costs would drop $18 billion a year if sodium levels were lowered from 3,400 mg a day to 2,300 mg. Cut the number to 1,500 mg a day, and the savings skyrocket to $28 billion.

And that might be what the FDA needs to hear, because saving lives hasn't been convincing enough.

Stephen Havas, M.D., adjunct professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, bemoans the needless deaths. 

"It's really astonishing that the agency has not seized the opportunity presented by the Institute of Medicine's landmark report and begun to use its regulatory authority to fix this huge problem with our food supply. How many more deaths will it take before they act?"

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