Will Salt Be Obama’s Last Stand on Nutrition?

April 5th, 2016

For many of us, a higher-than-normal reading on a blood pressure cuff at the doctor’s office means one thing: time to cut back on salty foods.

Sodium, after all, has for decades been associated with hypertension, water retention, osteoporosis, and heart and kidney disease. We all know that too much salt = bad.

But the science of late is less clear. After the federal government announced plans in 2009 to begin looking at reducing salt intake in the American diet (we all eat about 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, by the way—50 percent higher than the recommended amount!), researchers began releasing studies poking holes in some of the conventional knowledge about salt’s negative impact. For instance, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that reducing sodium intake didn’t actually reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease or death, and participants who cut their sodium to less than 3,000 milligrams per day in fact had a greater mortality risk.

Now, POLITICO is reporting that President Barack Obama may wade back into this contentious debate later this year by directing the Food and Drug Administration to set voluntary limits on the amount of salt snack foods can contain. The president, according to unnamed sources with knowledge of his nutrition policy plans, would be resurrecting an initiative that was stalled when studies like the JAMA report began to question the validity of low-salt diets.

The proposed program would set non-mandatory limits on salt in packaged food products. Naturally, food manufacturers are against such guidelines, even if they are voluntary.

“We don’t think this is justified,” Morton Satin, the vice president of science and research at The Salt Institute, an industry group representing salt producers, told POLITICO. “What is the impact? We’re going to have salt replaced by a cocktail of chemicals. They can’t just take out salt. They have to make the food tasty.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents many big food companies, also expressed concern with what it sees as outdated science surrounding salt.

But groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest maintain that the science behind lowering our salt intake is solid, pointing to a 2010 Institute of Medicine report suggesting that more than 100,000 deaths each year could be averted if the FDA begin to limit salt in foods. The CSPI calls salt “probably one of the deadliest ingredients in our food supply.”

In the end, however, it may fall on consumers to make healthier choices with our food dollars. We’ve seen in the past that companies rarely adhere to voluntary nutrition guidelines—as is the case with junk food companies marketing sugary foods to kids—so perhaps we shouldn’t put too much hope in Big Food to do the right thing.

But as we’ve seen with GMO labeling, artificial flavors and colors, and high-fructose corn syrup, the consumer has incredible power to demand that the companies they do business with care about the things they care about.

A little pressure on the big food companies can’t hurt.

Photo credit: Vera Lair via Stocksy

This article is related to: Diet, Educational, Food, Health, News, Nutrition Facts

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Steve HoltSteve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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