The FDA and the Dilemma of Salt

When I saw the Washington Post headline on my morning paper, top of the fold, saying the FDA plans to limit amount of salt allowed in processed foods for health reasons, I knew that critics of the Obama administration would be crying "nanny state." Ingesting all the salt you want without the government telling you that it's bad for you is another of those freedoms that the tea-party crowd surely cherishes. But we could all throw out our salt shakers and we'd still be getting way too much salt in our diet. That’s because a huge amount of sodium is routinely pumped into processed food and restaurant meals, resulting in Americans consuming two to three times the recommended amount of between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams a day set by the Institute of Medicine. 

In America, it's easy to be unhealthy and hard to be healthy, said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who has a personal interest in the findings of a new report issued today by the Institute of Medicine that says 100,000 premature deaths could be avoided each year, along with $18 billion in health-care costs, if Americans reduced their sodium intake. Harkin said his doctor advised him to lower his blood pressure, and instead of taking a drug as the doctor suggested, Harkin found that by just cutting down on the sodium in his diet, he could achieve the same result. But it took a lot of detective work to eliminate all those hidden sources of sodium. It's everywhere, "even breakfast cereal, for crying out loud," Harkin said in a teleconference arranged by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Now it's up to the Food and Drug Administration to put some teeth into the Institute of Medicine's recommendations, and the prospect for that is not rosy. The suggested timeline to transition the American diet away from salt-laden prepared food is 10 years. That struck Harkin as too long, as it did his compatriot on food-safety issues in the House, Democrat Rosa DeLauro. Harkin promised hearings, and DeLauro fended off questions about the FDA dragging its feet with reminders of how much times have changed, and how much more health-conscious the public is today. "Not long ago we were regarded as the crazy aunt and uncle in the attic with regard to labeling," she said, and now posting calories is becoming standard.

Still, relying on the food industry to act voluntarily is like whistling past the graveyard. The average school lunch has 1,000 milligrams of sodium; those humongous meals served at Denny's, IHOP, and the Olive Garden contain between 3,000 and 7,000 milligrams, requiring them under the new health-care-reform bill to post cautionary labeling. "Not only do we need information, we need choice," said Harkin, who predicted that restaurants will move toward healthier foods as customers cut back on the worst choices. Former president Bill Clinton is exhibit A as someone who changed his lifestyle and altered his eating habits after a health scare. Clinton told an audience in Washington last month that he used to treat himself to a raspberry scone at Starbucks after a long walk, but once it posted the calorie content, he never bought another one. 

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