Fight against salt needs consumer help

by Cole Petrochko

As a person who has handled salt in cooking, is prone to headaches from sodium, and has written an article on legislating salt content in prepared and packaged foods, let me tell you about salt, because I know a thing or two.

Well, it would be hard to not know much about salt after the recent string of attention paid to the “white shaken one” — eat too much and you put yourself at risk for hypertension, you dehydrate yourself, and risk over-seasoning your food. All of these are terrible things, but more and more salt seems to be sneaking into foods without even cracking open the two-chambered packet found in most fast food restaurants, sprinkling a dash in your chicken stock, or buttering your bread.

As in the above article, industry regulation of sodium has mostly been voluntary — salt is considered safe for consumption, regardless of the effects of eating gross amounts. But self-regulation is not cutting it, and recently the Institute of Medicine called on the FDA to introduce some legislation and stop up rising heart-related death and disease stemming from salt.

The best part of the outcry was the very consumer-minded way the IOM asked for the legislation to take effect: gradually reduce salt in products over time, rather than demanding an overnight overhaul of salt in food products. After all, we, as a society, now have a very strong taste for salted/y foods after eating processed and prepared foods with increasing amounts of the stuff.

So, knowing voluntary reduction has not worked to this point, and with a very responsible outline for reducing salt levels in the consumer’s interest in mind, the FDA responded to the request with more pushes for voluntary regulation. Awesome legislation, great job!

While I could debate at length the pros and cons of running legislation, measuring optimal salt amounts, and other wonderful practices that could contribute to major bureaucratic headaches for the FDA, blogger Melanie Warner has done a good job of summarizing the ordeal here.

Although major food companies like Kraft and General Mills have pledged meager drops in sodium content in packaged products, the initial report says these modest declines in salt quantity will not do enough to reduce the risk. If this is the best the companies can offer, the FDA is going to need more muscle than stern glances and unicorn wishes can provide.

But even without FDA intervention, companies need to reduce sodium levels in food. It is in their financial best interests because it is in their customers’ best interests — what good is selling a product that everyone needs to buy (food) if the product you’re selling is giving them all heart attacks? Salt is everywhere, as a preservative and a seasoning, and while it isn’t too big a schlep to ask people to take a glance at their food labels before they make it to the checkout counter, our food suppliers do us no favors by ensuring we have that maximum dose of salt we eat when they have the final say in what goes into their products.

So if the FDA isn’t going to legislate, manufacturers won’t budge, and reading is clearly too time consuming, what is left?

Well, like the back-and-forth between high fructose corn syrup sellers and health advocates, those groups could advertise against salty foods. But salt is fairly omnipresent, there is already some level of advertising in favor of reading food labels, and salt is far more necessary than an empty-calorie sweetener.

Ultimately, it looks like the consumer has to go to bat if anything is going to get done. Write to the companies you buy from to make food labels more visible and to cut down on the salt in packaged foods they make, write to the FDA asking them to make sure the guys providing food for them don’t inadvertently kill them in the process. If you’re worried, make yourself heard.

Cole Petrochko is staff writer at MedPage Today and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.

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