An Urban's Rural View

On Salt, the Regulators Get It Right

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Let's begin by stipulating that salt's defenders have a point: Some Americans may actually consume too little sodium, a major component of salt. We don't know how many, and there's a dispute about where the dividing line between too little and too much lies, but there are studies suggesting that cutting back too far on salt could actually be unhealthy (…).

But salt's critics also have a point: There's too much sodium in much of the processed food we eat. Processed food accounts for 70% of the nation's sodium consumption. And because Americans eat a lot of processed food, many of us are over-salted -- a problem in a country where nearly a third of the population has high blood pressure. High blood pressure is believed to increase the risk of coronary disease.

The Food and Drug Administration would like to lower the average national daily sodium consumption from 3,400 milligrams to 2,300, but even a 400 milligram reduction would, says the head of the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mean 34,000 fewer heart attacks and 22,000 fewer strokes each year (…). FDA cites studies estimating that "lowering U.S. sodium intake by about 40% over the next decade could save 500,000 lives and nearly $100 billion in healthcare costs (…)."

To be sure, these numbers should be taken with a grain of you-know-what. Only a few years ago the government counseled daily consumption of just 1,500 milligrams, a level subsequent research indicated was unnecessarily and maybe unsafely low. Still, the FDA is right when it says, "The totality of scientific evidence, as reviewed by many well-respected scientific organizations, continues to support lowering sodium consumption from current levels (…)."

Based on that scientific consensus, and facing a lawsuit from a consumer group (…), FDA has announced new voluntary guidelines for salt in packaged food and restaurant meals. The agency is asking food companies to lower the salt levels in their products a little over the next two years and a lot over the next 10.

For example, The Wall Street Journal says the guidelines would reduce the sodium in the country's leading potato chip, Lay's Classic, from 607 milligrams per 100 gram serving to 500 grams in two years, and to 250 grams in 10 years (…).

So is this another instance of heavy-handed over-regulation? Not exactly -- even if some food companies see it that way.

Without question, there's a price to be paid. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates it will cost food makers from $500,000 to $700,000 to reformulate a product in line with the FDA's guidelines -- $640 million for the industry as a whole (…).

Food companies worry, too, about tinkering with successful flavor formulas. Americans like the taste of salt. They've grown accustomed to high salt levels in their food. There's an undeniable risk they'll find less salty products less appealing.

For whatever it's worth, I can attest that, over time, it's easy to become accustomed to less salt. My wife and I decided to cut back three decades ago. We leave the salt out of recipes, the saltshaker off the table and most processed food un-bought.

Not long after we first went low-sodium, we began to not miss salt and, indeed, to find many restaurant meals too salty. I still like a little salt on some foods -- French fries and popcorn pop to mind -- but others, like peanut butter, I can only tolerate salt-free.

Healthy-food advocates wanted the FDA to mandate sodium reductions. With studies on both sides of the issue, making the guidelines voluntary was the more sensible course. Food companies will still feel pressured to cut back on salt, but they won't be penalized for failing to hit the FDA's somewhat arbitrary target levels.

Moreover, as the agency itself notes, "Voluntary guidelines provide FDA with greater flexibility to adjust these guidelines as new information becomes available and as the food supply evolves (…)."

A nudge from the government may be all that's needed when an industry is already moving in the desired direction. Companies like Mars Foods and General Mills have cut the salt in their products and committed to further cuts. Grocery-store shelves are full of low-sodium alternatives to popular products. The Grocery Manufacturers Association says between 2002 and 2013 its member companies introduced 6,500 lower-sodium options (…).

Britain set voluntary targets for lower sodium in 2003 and by 2011 sodium intake had fallen 15%. Deaths from stroke and heart attacks fell, too. Other factors may have played a part, of course, but the decline does lend support to what FDA is proposing.

And if another reason for regulators doing something is needed, the saltshaker symbolizes it: Those who need or want more salt can easily add it to their food. Subtracting is harder. Only the food companies can take salt out of packaged food and restaurant meals.

More refined information about the dangers of too much salt -- and too little -- is definitely needed. But on balance, based on what we know today, FDA's call for voluntary reductions in sodium is reasonable. Whatever you think of government regulation generally, this time the regulators seem to have gotten it right.

Urban Lehner



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