Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday - to salt or not to salt

The Institute of Medicine just released a report on salt consumption and health in the United States.  This report states that "consuming too much sodium is a concern for all individuals," a position that is vehemently opposed in some circles. Be that as it may, reducing salt intake has been proven to help reduce high blood pressure in many cases.  For this reason, salt intake is of particular concern in the food desert, as even pantry staples that are comparatively healthier than "fringe foods" can contain high levels of sodium.  The typical food desert population often has significantly more behavioural and genetic risks for high blood pressure e.g.: race, poor nutrition, obesity, and lack of exercise.

More interesting, however, was the IOM's suggestion on how to address this problem: enact legislation requiring food companies to gradually reduce the sodium in their products.  Almost 80% of our sodium intake is from processed food - only about 11% is salt we add at the table, and the remainder occurs naturally.  The IOM is of the opinion that the public won't notice the sodium reduction if it occurs gradually - but we've got a long way to go!  By their estimate, a "safe" amount is about a teaspoon per day total - and Americans currently consume about 50% more than that.

Is this a matter that requires legislation?  Well, while some food companies have voluntarily reduced the sodium in their foods as part of New York Mayor Bloomberg's National Salt Initiative program, most are resistant to changing the formulas that work for them, both from a saleability and from a manufacturing perspective.  In fact, the industry has come out against the recommendations of the IOM, citing other studies that point out ambiguities in the data used by the IOM.  While ambiguity may exist, considering the facts about the host of negative health outcomes in the food desert, and that there is no harm done by reducing salt, it is difficult to see a downside to regulating sodium.

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