Should the government set standards for sodium in food?

Becky Oberg's picture

Nearly one-third of featured products have increased their sodium content since 2005, according to a press release from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"Many food manufacturers have reduced the sodium content of their products since 2005, but some have added more salt than ever," reads a press release from the non-profit health and nutrition organization. According to the press release, researchers compared packaged and restaurant foods from 2005 to 2011. Featured packaged foods were baked goods, dairy products, frozen foods, meats, boxed prepared foods, salad dressings, sauces, snack foods, soups, canned vegetables and other canned foods. Featured restaurant foods included breakfast foods, breads, fried chicken, chicken strips and chicken nuggets, pizza, French fries, salads, sandwiches and soups, according to the report, titled "Salt Assault".

"Processed and restaurant foods account for more than three quarters of all sodium, according to a 1991 study," the report notes. "That figure is probably even higher today. The same study estimated that naturally occurring sodium (especially in dairy foods) accounts for about 12 percent of our intake, and sodium from salt added in cooking or at the table adds another 11 percent."

An analysis of the data in CSPI's study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Between 2005 and 2011, the sodium content in 402 processed foods declined by approximately 3.5 [percent], while the sodium content in 78 fast-food restaurant products increased by 2.6 [percent]," JAMA reports. "Although some products showed decreases of at least 30%, a greater number of products showed increases of at least 30%. The predominant finding is the absence of any appreciable or statistically significant changes in sodium content during 6 years."

The CSPI breaks down the data further.

"Of the 480 products tracked over that six-year period, sodium decreased in 205 (42.7 percent), increased in 158 (32.9 percent), and did not change in 117 (24.4 percent)," reads the press release. "Sodium increased in 34 products by 30 percent or more, while only 26 products decreased by the same magnitude. For instance, Ragu Old World Style Traditional Spaghetti Sauce had almost 40 percent less sodium in 2011 than 2005. Meanwhile, Hardee's raised the sodium in its medium French fries more than any other product monitored, having three times as much salt in 2011 compared to 2005. Even some organic brands had higher sodium levels, such as Whole Foods’ 365 Organic Tomato Sauce with a 93 percent increase, and Organic Valley Organic Low Moisture Mozzarella, with an 81 percent increase since 2005."

CSPI estimates that companies would have to reduce sodium by 50 to 70 percent in order for healthy, young adults to reach their recommended daily allowance of sodium.

"We are skeptical that reductions of this magnitude could be achieved without government interventions, such as those suggested by the Institute of Medicine's 2010 report," explained CSPI's executive director Michael Jacobson in the press release.

The JAMA report agrees.

"Based on our sample, reductions in sodium levels in processed and restaurant foods are inconsistent and slow," JAMA reads. "These findings are in accord with other data indicating the slow pace of voluntary reductions in sodium levels in processed and restaurant foods. Stronger action (eg, phased-in limits on sodium levels set by the federal government) is needed to lower sodium levels and reduce the prevalence of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases."

A 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued several recommendations regarding sodium in food. They include:

1) "The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should expeditiously initiate a process to set a mandatory national standards for the sodium content of foods."
2) "The food industry should voluntarily act to reduce the sodium content of foods in advance of the implementation of mandatory standards."
3) "Government agencies, public health and consumer organizations, and the food industry should carry out activities to support the reduction of sodium levels in the food supply."
4) "In tandem with recommendations to reduce the sodium content of the food supply, government agencies, public health and consumer organizations, health professionals, the health insurance industry, the food industry, and public-private partnerships should conduct augmenting activities to support consumers in reducing sodium intake."
5) "Federal agencies should ensure and enhance monitoring and surveillance relative to sodium intake measurement, salt taste preference, and sodium content of foods, and should ensure sustained and timely release of data in user-friendly formats.

Many lives could be saved by lowering the amount of sodium in food, as well as many millions of dollars.

"The cardiovascular benefits of reduced salt intake are on par with the benefits of population-wide reductions in tobacco use, obesity, and cholesterol levels," reports a University of California study on "A regulatory intervention designed to achieve a reduction in salt intake of 3 g per day would save 194,000 to 392,000 quality-adjusted life-years and $10 billion to $24 billion in health care costs annually. Such an intervention would be cost-saving even if only a modest reduction of 1 g per day were achieved gradually between 2010 and 2019 and would be more cost-effective than using medications to lower blood pressure in all persons with hypertension."

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