The typical American diet contains way too much salt, according to clinical studies recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine (1/22/2010; NEJM.org). This is not exactly news; however, the negative consequences for our health from the widespread overuse of salt in our food are more evident than ever before.
Clinical research has long shown the existence of direct links between increased salt consumption and hypertension (high blood pressure) as well as cardiovascular disease. Yet, salt consumption remains on the rise. The bulk of our salt intake, however, does not primarily come from excessive usage of salt in the kitchen or at the dinner table, but rather from many of the food products we eat every day. In fact, almost 80 percent of our salt intake is derived from processed foods, not from salt added during preparation or consumption. In particular breads, processed and canned meats and vegetables as well as soups, sauces and many spices contain high amounts of salt, mostly in the form of sodium chloride. Sodium is used in food manufacturing and packaging to add flavor and as a preservative to prevent spoilage and add shelf life. More surprisingly, many medications and vitamin supplements also contain elevated levels of sodium.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends keeping our daily salt consumption at a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium, roughly the equivalent of a teaspoon of salt, depending on health status and age. That’s far below the 4,160 milligrams most Americans eat on average every day.
As widely reported in the press, the Health Department of New York City has now begun campaigning for a voluntary reduction of salt use by food manufacturers and restaurant chefs who operate within its jurisdiction. New York’s initiative is laudable, especially if it leads to a widespread following elsewhere. On an individual basis, however, behavioral changes will be harder to come by. So far, there has been little progress in public awareness about the potential health risks from excessive salt intake. Some experts have pointed out that behavioral modifications in the larger population take time, as we have seen with public health campaigns about tobacco or cholesterol. Stepping up regulatory measures would be helpful as well, considering that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially still regards salt as a “generally safe” food additive.
Limiting the use of dietary salt in our food supply through educational as well as regulatory efforts, even if only to a modest degree, could potentially make a significant difference in the fight against coronary heart disease and hypertension. Foreseeable benefits are not only measurable in terms of saved lives, but also in terms of actionable preventive measures to reduce health care costs.
As always, there is resistance to be counted on, not only from the food industry but also the public. After all, dietary preferences are perceived by most of us as a very private matter that should not be scrutinized by others. Manufacturers will claim that new regulations are either not feasible or too expensive. However, I think we should be hopeful. Business always knows how to turn an obstacle into another asset. Have you noticed how many food items now post big “NO TRANS FATS” signs on their labels? That too was rejected as an unreasonable burden only a short time ago. Before we know it, items with “NO ADDED SALT” will get the most shelf space. And what about the restrictions on our personal choices? Well, we hardly can remember when smoking in restaurants and other public places was considered a “private matter.”
Most of these things change over time, often insidiously and unnoticeable. Only when we look back, we can recognize that some changes, indeed, have been for the better. Besides, we don’t have to wait for others to take action. Don’t be afraid to speak your “health-conscious mind”! Before you buy, take a moment to read carefully the Nutrition Facts labels on your packaged foods, and then pick the brands with the lowest sodium content. This way, you can influence both business and public policy right now, and even more so in the future.