5 Reasons the government shouldn’t set sodium standards

I should start by saying that I am not obsessed with blood pressure. My plan was to post 7 Reasons you should monitor your blood pressure and move on.

But the very next day, when I sat down to eat my low-salt breakfast, a headline in the Washington Post caught my eye. It discussed a report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress and prepared by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine.

Why too much salt is bad

Consumption of high levels of salt—the primary source of sodium in the diet—increases the risk of high blood pressure which itself increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease. Estimates are that reducing the consumption of sodium could save more than 100,000 lives annually in the U.S.

Setting sodium standards

The Institute of Medicine report recommended that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set maximum allowable levels for sodium in foods, slowly reducing the levels over time “in a way that goes unnoticed by most consumers as individuals’ taste sensors adjust to the lower levels of sodium.”

Currently, there are no standards, but the recommended maximum daily intake of sodium  is 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day for those in the general population (and less for those at risk for high blood pressure). On average, though, Americans consume more than 3,400 mg per day.

Where the salt comes from

About 10-12% of sodium in the diet occurs naturally in food. Another 10-12% is added in cooking at home or at the table. The rest—a whooping 77% or so of sodium in the diet comes from that added to processed food or to food served in restaurants.

So, it probably seemed like a good strategy to reduce the amount of sodium in the diet by setting standards for the amount which may be added to “processed and restaurant food.” However, I don’t think that it is.

Why setting sodium standards is not a good idea

*** It assumes that salt in the diet is the main cause of high blood pressure and doesn’t address other risk factors, such as age? Is high blood pressure actually an inevitable result of aging, independent of diet? Or is it assumed to be inevitable because it’s so common in the U.S. (although not in some “under-developed” countries)?

*** It doesn’t consider other approaches. What about medication to reduce blood pressure. What about a combination of diet, exercise, and medication? What are the recommended numbers for some one (like me) whose high blood pressure is well controlled by such a combination?

*** Processed foods and restaurant foods are two completely different categories, and it doesn’t make sense to lump them together.

*** It’s too broad. Why try to reduce the amount of salt in everything? Instead of worrying about thousands of food products with a bit too much salt, how about concentrating on  fewer products with sky-high amounts of salt? Think potato chips, French-fried potatoes, salted nuts, hot dogs, beef jerky, and that abomination in a bag—pork rinds—to pick  just a few.

*** It’s based upon the unit of the “serving” which—while generally obvious when eating in a restaurant—is nearly useless when eating food cooked at home.

An example:  last night I cooked Spanish Rice with Chicken. The processed foods containing sodium were canned tomatoes, chicken broth, and left-overs from a chicken roasted at home a few days before.

I measured the amount of chicken broth initially, but later the dish was getting a little dry, so I poured in some more without measuring. It was a recipe meant to serve 4 to 6. Since there were just two of us, I cut it in half, sort of. But my BF and I didn’t eat the same amount, and we didn’t eat it all. There were left-overs.

So my questions are:

*** How much sodium was in the pre-roasted chicken?

*** Was it “plumped up” with saline water during production?

*** If so, did the roasting get rid of it?

*** Did it get rid of the water but leave the salt?

*** How much sodium did I consume?

*** How about my BF?

*** And, finally, does anyone seriously think that a person just trying to get a good meal on the table will even try to sort all this out?

What do you think? Is there a better way to attack the problem of dangerous levels of sodium in food? Should the government do something? Should it focus on restaurant food and forget about processed foods? Should it do nothing? I look forward to getting your comments, questions, and suggestions.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Cara 11/09/2011, 7:08 pm

    While I appreciate your opinion, your “alternatives” seem a little off. While medications can and do help thousands control their blood pressure everyday, shouldn’t we as a society try and prevent the problem in the first place? By reducing the amount of sodium in foods we are fighting against the very machine that is causing the need for such medications.

    Also, you failed to mention that these medication can be extremely expensive, placing many people in debt. Beyond this, highly processed foods are often marketed at African Americans, who also have higher instances of hypertension. Isn’t it unethical seeing as this population also historically comes from a lower socio-economic status?

    • Madeleine Kolb 11/09/2011, 8:52 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Cara. As I’ve written before on my blog with reference to Type 2 diabetes, I don’t think that medication is the only answer–or the best answer–for every health condition. In the case of high blood pressure, however, a very effective and inexpensive generic drug is available. The one I take costs $2 or less for a 90-day supply.

      For myself, I control blood pressure by a combination of approaches: namely, measuring my own blood pressure, having regular check-ups, taking a prescription medicine daily, never buying or eating potato chips and such, cooking healthful food at home, exercising, and avoiding certain restaurant chains known for their overly fatty-salty-sugary food.

      I’d never advocate that anyone eat whatever salt-laden snacks and main courses she wanted at home or in a restaurant and then take a pill to negate the damage. It makes sense for government agencies to provide information about health and nutrition. However, I really question how effective it would be for an agency to set “maximum allowable levels for sodium in foods, slowly reducing the levels over time.” What standards would you set for potato chips, for example? Or for pepperoni pizza?

  • brindils 06/22/2010, 7:51 am

    “Consumption of high levels of salt—the primary source of sodium in the diet—increases the risk of high blood pressure which itself increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease.”
    .-= brindils´s last blog ..U.K. tighten use of salt in all kinds of food =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 05/08/2010, 9:53 am

    Kelly, I really appreciate your comment, and you’re absolutely right that
    “Processed foods are unhealthy for a variety of reasons not just the salt content. By lowering the salt content they may try to keep the flavor by adding other chemicals or fat.”

    That is another good reason not to mandate limits of sodium in processed or restaurant foods. I, too, think the focus should be on such things as education; voluntary efforts, such as the National Salt Reduction Initiative, started by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and support of local farmers’ markets.

  • Kelly 05/08/2010, 12:07 am

    I don’t know if health legislation is the best solution either. Processed foods are unhealthy for a variety of reasons not just the salt content. By lowering the salt content they may try to keep the flavor by adding other chemicals or fat.

    There should be greater education on the importances of eating whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods.
    .-= Kelly @ Impowerage´s last blog ..Senior’s Twitter Guide: Part 3 | Finding and Getting Followers =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 05/06/2010, 11:20 am

    Jenny, Packing your lunch is a great idea. I used to do this at my last job, although it was mostly to use the time to work out on a treadmill. It makes sense for lots of reasons, one being that salt is not the only ingredient to consider. There’s also the amount and type of fat and the amount of sugar. When you cook at home or pack lunches, you can prepare food that’s healthful for the whole family. Fortunately, I haven’t noticed bloating when I do eat fast-food.

  • Jenny Hones 05/06/2010, 10:11 am

    Hi Madeleine,
    Like Angela, recently I attended a seminar and we were given only 30 minutes to have lunch because after a consensus we all decided that priority was to get home to beat traffic. Fortunately, I packed my lunch. The others had no other option but fast food. I think a good way to control diet is to plan which can be difficult for those with busy schedules.
    I believe salt is addictive, because I crave it. Growing up on a Japanese diet, we consume a lot of salt through soy sauce and other ingredients. But, because I have many mouths to feed I cook at home all the time. When we do go out for Asian food I can tell the salt intake is high because my hands become bloated. Have you noticed this too?
    .-= Jenny Hones´s last blog ..Children’s Day and Symbolism =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 05/06/2010, 7:44 am

    Angela,
    My wok gets quite a workout. My BF is glad that he took the hint about getting me one for my birthday two years ago. (Guys who don’t cook need very specific hints in terms of the specs for kitchen ware.)

    And, yes, it’s nearly impossible to eat healthy when you’re eating out. It’s so hard if you’re traveling or attending a seminar or otherwise unable to cook for yourself for a time. Perhaps if we, as individual consumers, were to give feedback to some of the restaurants, it would help.

  • Angela Artemis 05/04/2010, 5:52 pm

    Madeleine, Yes I have a wok and love cooking in it. I know – isn’t it great to have fresh veggies to saute?

  • Angela Artemis 05/04/2010, 5:49 pm

    Madeleine, I’ve had a house guest for the last 4 days while we both attended a seminar. The seminar starts at 9 and doesn’t end until 7 so by the time we get back to my house every evening it’s at least 8 o’clock. We’ve been eating every meal out except for breakfast. Oh my god! Even though I’ve been picking the healthiest foods on the menus I was brushing my teeth last night when I thought I heard a drum. It was no drum! I was hearing my blood pressure. I don’t understand why restaurants over salt their food. I’m happy to have my friend here, but honestly I cannot wait to have the time to cook again!
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last blog ..A Meditation on Meditating =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 04/29/2010, 10:51 am

    Justin, I agree that legislation, especially as recommended in the Institute of Medicine report, is not the answer to this problem. However, government is not limited to legislation. I learned just yesterday that Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, has started a National Salt Reduction Initiative. Already 16 companies, including Starbucks and Heinz, have pledged to voluntarily cut salt in some of their products. This sounds promising!

  • Madeleine Kolb 04/28/2010, 10:10 am

    Angela
    You’re absolutely right. Cooking healthful food at home is so important to preventing or managing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions. It’s also a significant money-saver. I cook a healthful, tasty meal nearly every night for myself and my BF and really enjoy our dinners together.

    By the way, Angela, have you cooked with a wok? I got one about a year ago, and I love it. When the farmers’ markets open up, that wok will get lots of use.

  • Justin Dixon 04/28/2010, 10:05 am

    Personally there is little that I trust legislation to accomplish, rather we need people to become aware of what they are eating, and what tasty options there are. Best way I can think of this is to start on the community level by holding a pot luck of healthy foods.
    .-= Justin Dixon´s last blog ..Life Doesn’t Come in Easy: Why That’s a Good Thing =-.

  • Angela Artemis 04/27/2010, 5:43 pm

    Hi Madeleine,
    You bring up another important topic here. Sodium content is extremely high in the American diet. I can’t tell you how many people I know in their 40s who have high blood pressure and are on medication for it. When I ask them what they’re eating – it’s obvious why their blood pressure is sky high. A steady diet of take-out food will kill you for sure.

    I’m so grateful that my mother was so health conscious and taught us to eat right and COOK!
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last blog ..Earth Day or Urgent Day? =-.