The Petrified Elephant in the FDA's Cafeteria

Articles
May 18, 2009

The Petrified Elephant in the FDA's Cafeteria

It is a common misconception that the majority of our salt intake is due to a heavy handed sprinkling of salt from the table salt shaker. Yes, this is a misconception and in fact, processed foods and restaurant meals contribute to upwards of 75% of our total daily sodium intake. Reducing sodium intake has been on the agenda of health advocates for decades. "Killer Salt," written by Marietta Whittlesey in 1977, first exposed the negative health effects of dietary salt to the general public. Despite their efforts, Americans continue to consume more and more salt; in this case, individuals are not entirely to blame. Our environment, i.e. grocery stores, markets, food manufactures, and popular go-to restaurant chains and fast food outlets are contributing to the majority of the problem. The FDA also deserves a huge amount of blame. Current Guidelines The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and less than 1,500 mg for middle-aged and older adults as well as individuals with hypertension and African-Americans. Therefore, approximately half of the population is advised to consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. To put some perspective on it, one teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium.

It is a common misconception that the majority of our salt intake is due to a heavy handed sprinkling of salt from the table salt shaker.  Yes, this is a misconception and in fact, processed foods and restaurant meals contribute to upwards of 75% of our total daily sodium intake.

Reducing sodium intake has been on the agenda of health advocates for decades. "Killer Salt," written by Marietta Whittlesey in 1977, first exposed the negative health effects of dietary salt to the general public.  Despite their efforts, Americans continue to consume more and more salt; in this case, individuals are not entirely to blame.  Our environment, i.e. grocery stores, markets, food manufactures, and popular go-to restaurant chains and fast food outlets are contributing to the majority of the problem.  The FDA also deserves a huge amount of blame.  

Current Guidelines

The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and less than 1,500 mg for middle-aged and older adults as well as individuals with hypertension and African-Americans.  Therefore, approximately half of the population is advised to consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.  To put some perspective on it, one teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium.

Sodium and Hypertension?

Yes!  After sifting through all of the evidence, aka, conducting a meta-analysis (and doing all of the work for us) the WHO concluded in their 2003 Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases report that "All these data show convincingly that sodium intake is directly associated with blood pressure" and recommends that sodium consumption be less than 2,000 mg per day.¹ Hypertension is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease, the number one killer in our country.

Some Stats about America

Approximately 65 million adults have high blood pressure; including more than half of those aged 60 and above.  In addition, 45 million people have what is considered "pre-hypertension," a category that falls between normal (if not optimal) and clearly high.  This range is referred to as "silently harmful."  A famed heart study conducted in 2002 found that about 90 percent of Americans will eventually develop hypertension.²

So how much sodium is usually found in foods?   Natural Sources vs. Processed

Some natural sources of sodium include dairy, meat, poultry, fish and vegetables.  One cup of low-fat milk contains 107mg sodium. But do keep in mind that natural sources only contribute to about 5% of total daily intake; they should not be disregarded but surely are not to blame.

The major sodium offenders are the processed staples in the American diet.  Canned vegetables, soups, deli/lunch meats and frozen foods contribute to our over consumption of sodium.  Many pre-packaged meals can contain upwards of 1,000 mg of sodium per serving.

In order to include the claim that a product is "healthy" the FDA has approved individual food items must not exceed 480 mg sodium per serving and a ready meal type product must not exceed 600 mg sodium per serving.

Feel empowered and take responsibility

The consequences related to a diet high in sodium are well known and the public is well informed- there is no place left to hide that 1,200mg of sodium jumping out from the nutrition fact label.  Consumers are better educated about nutrition for their health and are reading labels.  Attention food marketers: you don't want your product to be left on the shelf because of its high sodium content, only to collect dust.

It is generally understood that salt or other sodium containing compounds are used to preserve food and improve taste and texture but come on, REFORMULATE!  Get creative, use more spices and herbs- let the consumer add salt at their own will!

The truth is, observing an increase in blood pressure as we age is not something that is actually associated with the ageing process, this is something Americans are conditioned to believe because of our generally poor lifestyle choices and the abundance of processed convenience foods- a staple feature of our and other westernized cultures.

Retailers have an obligation to help your customers make healthy lifestyle changes and feel empowered to change their diets. Your efforts will be noticed and rewarded with increased sales and by the nature of helping shoppers live healthier and longer, you will have a customer for a longer period of time. 

For specific approved labeling guidelines visit the FDA's website (www.fda.gov).  Or for more general advice visit the American Heart Association. http://www.americanheart.org

¹http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/005/AC911E/AC911E00.HTM
²http://www.cspinet.org/salt/saltreport.pdf

Information for this article gathered from several Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports and articles:

http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/saltupdatedec08.pdf

http://www.cspinet.org/new/200905111.html
http://www.cspinet.org/salt/saltreport.pdf