U.S. Gov't Says Salt Is Unsafe

by Marian Burros

New report urges FDA to save lives by taking salt off the "safe list" and regulating its use in food.

April 20, 2010

Cutting back on salt could save 100,000 lives per year.

RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—It's no secret that there is too much salt in the typical American diet. But for the first time, the federal government is looking for ways to counter that trend by controlling the levels of sodium permitted in packaged and restaurant food. A report released yesterday by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has told the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it should undertake this change as soon as possible, in order to prevent hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. The change would also affect food regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as meat and poultry. This is an about-face from the government’s long-held position that sodium falls into a category of generally recognized as safe (GRAS), which means that there are no limits to the amount that can be used in processed foods.

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THE DETAILS: The government’s Dietary Guidelines recommend that healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. And soon it will advise people who are over 50 years old to consume no more than 1,500 mg a day. Most Americans consume far too much salt, at least 3,400 mg daily—and almost 80 percent of that comes from processed foods. School lunches have an average of 1,000 mg of sodium.

The toll of all that excess salt is quite high. A recent study said that if Americans cut back to the recommended 2,300 daily mg, it could prevent 100,000 deaths a year and reduce healthcare costs by $18 billion.

For those who don’t prepare meals from scratch—in other words, most of us—sticking to the recommended levels while eating processed food is virtually impossible. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which been has beating the drum about the risk from high sodium consumption for decades, has produced a chart of the 10 saltiest foods: A meal of Hungry-Man Grilled Bourbon Steak Strips with sauce and rice and green beans wins top honors with its 1,990 mg. Kraft Easy Mac microwaveable macaroni and cheese dinner, at number 10, packs 1,050 mg. While those may be the saltiest examples, relying on almost any processed foods will quickly shoot you past the healthy limit. Even one cup of most packaged soups contains 700 mg, and many have as much as 1,000 mg.

As Michael Jacobson, director of the CSPI, sees it, “the overconsumption of sodium is “the greatest problem in the American diet.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Many voices have been calling for a reduction in America's salt intake. But this announcement may herald a new urgency. The food industry began its own effort to incrementally reduce sodium in processed foods over the last year. But the IOM report said voluntary efforts over a 40-year period have failed. Working with the food industry and health experts, the FDA has made plans to reduce sodium levels incrementally over a 10-year period, so that consumers will not be aware of the changes—and because of food-safety questions and other technical difficulties involved in removing salt. But Senator Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa) and Representative Rosa De Lauro, (D-Conn.), both of whom have been involved with the nutrition and food-safety issues for years, don’t think it should take 10 years to bring the sodium levels down to a healthy number.

They're not the only ones who want a faster assault on salt. At a CSPI news conference about the IOM report, Stephen Havas, MD, adjunct professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University school of medicine, said “there really is an issue of urgency,” and estimated number of premature deaths from too much sodium to be as high as 150,000 per year. “It doesn’t take 10 years,” he said. “It could be done in five years; it’s a matter of political will. Congress and mass media have to hold FDA’s feet to the fire. There is no sense of urgency there.”

No one mentioned that reducing sodium in food could lead to higher costs because salt is the cheapest seasoning. Lower salt levels in food may mean more expensive herb and spices will have to be used.

Critics, of course, are already complaining that the nanny state and Big Brother are taking over. The American Council on Science and Health, an organization with significant funding from the food industry, has said, “The people who were nanny-state activists are now running portions of the government.”

Whether or not our food becomes less salty in the near future, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from too much salt:

• Know your number. Most adults should consume no more than 2,300 mg of salt per day. Check with your doctor to see if your cut-off number should be even lower. Then spend a few days checking the labels of the packaged foods you eat. Seeing how much salt sneaks its way into your diet may help motivate you to make a change.

• Use every trick in the book. There are all sorts of ways to reduce your salt intake, including eating more fruit, veggies, and whole foods, changing the way you cook, preparing more food from scratch, and depending more on herbs and spices for flavoring. Use the tactics that best fit your eating habits. See 5 Ways to Shake Salt out of Your Diet for suggestions.

• Ask salty questions at restaurants. Don't forget that restaurant food can be a significant source of salt. See 6 Ways to Cut Salt out of Restaurant Food for advice in keeping excess salt off the menu.

• Swap herbs for salt. As mentioned, learning to cook with herbs can help you prepare flavorful food that's not loaded with sodium. To try it, check out How to Use Herbs to Add Flavor and Cut Salt.