Monday, January 18, 2010

Altering Our Salt Obsession: A New York City Initiative

Salt is a hot topic in health right now. For more than a decade Americans have been consuming nearly twice the recommended amount of salt in their foods, mostly due to eating out more and the increased consumption of heavily processed, heavily salted foods.

Nutritionists and doctors have been concerned about individuals' excess consumption of salt (or sodium), particularly among those with high blood pressure. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends a maximum of 2,300 mg of sodium/day (only about 1 tsp of salt), and even less for those with high-blood pressure. But many Americans consume closer to 3 tsp of salt each day.

Eating too much salt has been shown to raise blood pressure and increase a person's risk of suffering from heart disease or stroke. That's why if you or someone you know has been diagnosed with high blood pressure, your doctor has likely advised you to cut back on your salt intake and switch to low- or no-sodium products so that you can add your own salt to taste.

This week public health professionals and politicians stirred interest in salt -- particularly the abundant use of salt and salt-laden products by restaurants, especially fast food restaurants. The New York Times reported on January 11 of Mayor Bloomberg's plan to support the reduction of salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over the next 5 years.

Although the plan calls for a voluntary program, it has drawn a lot of attention to the issue. With a follow-up article in Room For Debate, the Times' Editor's blog, featuring 7 leading food and nutrition experts (everyone from food critics arguing that salt is necessary part of flavorful food and nutritionists, like Walter Willett of Harvard arguing that excess salt is bad for health and used abusively by food industry).

What I find most fascinating is the shift from talking about salt as an individuals' problem to be solved on his or her own to a population-based approach to improving the health of ALL people by removing excess salt from foods. Though not everyone thinks a population-based approach to excess salt consumption is a good idea (see a New York Times Op-Ed from February 5, 2009).

Personally, I've never have a problem adding salt to well-seasoned meat or vegetables, since you can always add salt to food, but you can't take it away once it's there! For example, after many years avoiding eating McDonald's french fries, I now find the saltiness so overwhelming that I no longer enjoy eating them (yes...I used to like McDonald's fries a lot!).

That's not to say that salt is not an important part of an overall, healthy diet. It is! (and for some people they may need even a little more salt in their diet to keep their blood pressure high enough). But for most of us, we consume way too much salt without even realizing it.

In my opinion, producers of processed food are the biggest culprit when it comes to added and abusive sodium use. In many cases they seem to use salt to mask food that is of poor quality and chemically created or enhanced. Center for Science in the Public Interest has come out with several reports documenting Big Food's abusive use of salt which can be found on their website, here. One report, Salt Assault, even includes a side-by-side comparison of popular consumer brands like Pillsbury, Oscar Mayer, and Tyson -- as well as store-brand (e.g. Safeway) and organic products.

Just before the New York Time's article came out last Monday, I remember seeing a Campbell's commercial boasting about reformulating their famous tomato soup with sea salt in order to keep the flavor profile, but reduce the amount of salt that was needed to accomplish it. What great timing! (BTW. Campbell's was praised by CSPI in 2006 for significantly reducing salt in many of their soups and introducing more low sodium products). Food companies' obsession with salt may be waning, because consumers have already started asking for changes to be made!

I hope Mayor Bloomberg's initiative will continue to sway public support toward making a healthy lifestyle the easy (or at least easier) choice.

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