Monday, June 19, 2006

Sodium policy: the American Medical Association recommends warning labels for salt

I know, dear reader, that you get nervous when food policy advocates overstep their bounds. While you may tolerate public policy to address newfangled hazards like trans fats or high fructose corn syrup or the prions that cause "Mad Cow Disease," you draw the line with traditional historically accepted foods.

Like salt.

Still, give this one a chance to rattle around your brain for a day or two.

Even if you are generally skeptical of policy responses, except in cases where truly large numbers of lives might be saved, then this issue makes the cut. Last year, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was quoted taking a lonely position in favor of new policies on salt, I couldn't help noticing the good rhetorical points the group scored. For example, given that hypertension and heart disease are top-ranked killers, do admit it is a bit ironic that the lack of policy regulation for salt is officially justified by its FDA classification as "Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)."

Now, the sober professional representatives of our family doctors (and their pharmaceutical companies) have taken a similar stand. The American Medical Association (AMA) this month called for several new policies on sodium (Associated Press).

The AMA press release makes clear that the problem is with food manufacturers and uncontrolled sodium in restaurant food, not mainly your household salt shaker:

Excess sodium greatly increases the chance of developing hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. Research shows most Americans consume two to three times the amount of sodium that is healthy, with an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the daily intake of sodium coming from processed and restaurant foods. "Just one cup of canned soup can contain more than 50 percent of the FDA recommended daily allowance," explains Dr. Rohack. "A serving of lasagna in a restaurant can put a diner over their recommended daily sodium allowance in just one meal. These examples stress the importance of a national reduction in the amount of sodium in processed and restaurant foods."

The recommendations adopted today include:

  • urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to revoke the "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) status of salt and to develop regulatory measures to limit sodium in processed and restaurant foods;
  • calling for a minimum 50 percent reduction in the amount of sodium in processed foods, fast food products and restaurant meals to be achieved over the next decade;
  • working with appropriate partners to educate consumers about the benefits of long-term, moderate reductions in sodium intake;
  • discussing with the FDA ways to improve labeling to assist consumers in understanding the amount of sodium contained in processed food products and to develop label markings and warnings for foods high in sodium.

The AMA is confident the implementation of these recommendations would reduce sodium intake, result in a better educated consumer, and eventually lower the incidence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in this country.