Why you should care about sodium

    Photo by wlodi on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    You need some of it so that your nerves work, but too much of it will kill you. Oh yeah and you occasionally get turned into it for disobeying God. I’m talking, of course, about salt — specifically one half of the chemical compound sodium chloride, the sodium half — and we’re consuming too much of it. The amount of sodium in foods has only increased and voluntary efforts on the part of the food industry have made no real dent in the amount of sodium we consume. A report from the Institute of Medicine, by making these points and more, has been making waves and has lead to suggestions that the FDA will increase regulatory efforts on sodium reduction.

    So just how much sodium is in our food, and why is that amount bad? According to the Institute of Medicine, the average American consumes some 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, which is some 1.5 teaspoons and is well above the 2,300 milligrams a day that are the maximum healthy daily intake as defined by current dietary guidelines. We could probably get by with just 1,500 milligrams.

    Moreover, the Institute’s study showed that the overwhelming majority of this sodium is in the food itself, contrary to the food and salt industry’s claims that the unhealthy amount of sodium we consume is due to people explicitly adding it to their food; only around 5% of sodium is added independently. Moreover, most of this sodium is in food we don’t prepare at all — processed and restaurant food — and so we’re less likely to be aware of how much sodium we’re consuming.

    So we’re consuming sodium — a lot of it — but why is the ever-so-tasty salt crystal, the intoxicating NaCl, such a scrooge? Well, it doesn’t have to be. Food sodium isn’t a batrachotoxin or Ke$ha; it can be consumed perfectly safely in reasonable amounts and is, in fact, essential for us being alive.

    But like another molecule (CO2) whose presence is a sine qua non of life on earth, we now have a crisis of abundance. Most notably, sodium has been linked with high blood pressure. Over all, one of the study’s authors said that sodium reduction could prevent “100,000 deaths annually and save billions of dollars.”

    Much like with the debates over CO2 reduction, there is lots of “scientific” pushback on the dangers of high sodium intake that is really just industry-funded efforts to cloud and obscure rather clear science.

    Take, for instance, the Salt Institute, a “North American-based non-profit salt industry trade association dedicated to advocating responsible uses of salt,” whose mission is to lead “salt companies in the world united in the common purpose of bringing the myriad benefits of salt to the benefit of mankind.” It is, in essence, the Salt Lobby and they can always be counted on to be quoted in most news stories about any prospective government regulation of salt.

    But the scientific consensus is pretty clear. As Marion Nestle, a public health professor at New York University put it, “every committee that has ever reviewed the research has consistently come to the same conclusion: salt reduction is a good idea.” A recurring thread in the Institute of Medicine’s study is just how long the public health community has been trying to reduce salt intake without any success.

    So what should we do? The Institute recommends a simple and rather drastic step: limiting the maximum sodium content in processed food. Is this the best way of dealing with the problem? Probably.

    For one, industry led voluntary efforts — which have, to be fair, been increasing in scale and number recently — haven’t been successful and are unlikely to ever be. After all, salt is really good, and we probably have an evolutionary adaptation that encourages us to eat as much of it as possible. While, say, a deer who eats a sweat socked campers’ shirt is living in a low-salt environment, today we have more easy access salt than we could ever need and since there are good economic reasons for food companies to put as much of it in their processed food as they can.

    But isn’t salt tasty and shouldn’t we be allowed to eat as much of it as we want? Well, you still can: No one is proposing that the government prohibit the sale of salt. And right now, things work the other way. It’s hard for someone who doesn’t prepare their own food to find low-sodium options. Deli meats, condiments and cereal, just to name a few, are all sodium laced. And sure, we may like all the sodium we eat now, but seeing just how far out of whack our current sodium intake is, it’s unlikely that there will be any dramatic or particularly noticeable declines in taste because of a government effort to regulate sodium intake. And besides, heart attacks hardly taste good.


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