HEART
June 9, 2016

The FDA vs. Frito Lay

The FDA wants snack food makers to cut the amount of salt in their foods over the next 10 years. Good luck with that.

The salt wars rage on. A new set of guidelines from the FDA lays out ways to reduce the average American’s salt consumption from its current unhealthy level — nearly twice what we should be eating, according to the agency — to a healthier level of 2,300 mg/day.

And since, as they write, the “majority of sodium intake comes from processed and prepared foods, not the salt shaker,” the burden is on food manufacturers to voluntarily cut back on added salt in processed foods — arguably one of the factors that make processed foods like chips and deli meats so delectable (or addictive) to so many.

When the British government adjusted salt guidelines to levels similar to what the FDA is proposing, the incidence of heart attack and stroke in Britain fell significantly.

The FDA is calling for the gradual voluntary reduction of the sodium added to packaged food over the next 10 years to give consumer tastes a chance to adjust over time. The agency estimates that 80% of manufactured food sales are created by 10% of the products on the market. And many of these are quite high in salt.

“Many Americans want to reduce sodium in their diets, but that’s hard to do when much of it is in everyday products we buy in stores and restaurants,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is about putting power back in the hands of consumers, so that they can better control how much salt is in the food they eat and improve their health.”

There is a large body of scientific evidence linking salt to high blood pressure, though these are correlational, rather than experimental, studies and show only the association between high salt intake and a greater risk of heart disease. The research findings do not prove that salt causes heart problems. But it's worth noting, however, that when the British government adjusted salt guidelines to levels similar to what the FDA is proposing, the incidence of heart attack and stroke in Britain fell significantly.

Of course, salt isn’t the only thing that matters in heart health. Too many calories in general, as well as too much sugar and trans fats, are also known to affect the heart, as are being overweight and being sedentary.

There’s been some pushback, not only from the food industry, who are notoriously resistant to changing recipes of products that sell well, but from experts who say the research doesn’t fully support the new guidelines.

Some studies have suggested that too little salt is also bad for us. It isn't yet totally clear whether reducing salt recommendations will lead to greater benefits than drawbacks in all groups of people. But the FDA is confident about its new recommendations.

“The totality of the scientific evidence supports sodium reduction from current intake levels,” Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, asserts. “Experts at the Institute of Medicine have concluded that reducing sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day can significantly help Americans reduce their blood pressure and ultimately prevent hundreds of thousands of premature illnesses and deaths. Because the majority of sodium in our diets comes from processed and prepared foods, consumers are challenged in lowering their sodium intake themselves.”

Of course, salt isn’t the only factor that matters in heart health. Too many calories in general, as well as too much sugar and trans fats, are also known to affect the heart, as are being overweight and being sedentary. So reducing salt in processed foods may help — but so will reducing our intake of processed foods in general. And so will doing all the other things that we know help our hearts, like eating whole foods, exercising, not smoking and staying at a healthy body weight.

The new guidelines can be found on the FDA’s website.

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