Michael Jacobson is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a nutrition expert.
Imagine the tragedy if every day for years on end a crowded jetliner crashed. Then imagine the outrage when the public learned that those tragedies had been preventable, but that the airlines and government had done nothing. Fortunately, jetliners rarely crash. But excessive salt in our food is causing several hundred preventable deaths every day—100,000 deaths each and every year. And the food industry and government have done virtually nothing.
Scientists have known for decades that high-sodium diets tend to raise blood pressure, and that high blood pressure causes heart attacks and strokes. Yet for years, the American food (and salt) industry has fended off regulation. The outspoken Salt Institute has demanded ever more evidence that efforts to lower sodium consumption would be effective. For instance, it has complained that there were no direct studies showing that reducing salt would decrease the occurrence of heart attacks and strokes.
Now, a small number of such studies have been done. The most telling is the Trials of Hypertension Prevention. More than a thousand people were encouraged to cut the sodium content of their diets, while a similar group served as a control group. Ten to 15 years later, the group that consumed less salt had at least a 25 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Due to the huge body of research showing that reduced sodium intake lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes, countless health organizations have recommended that people consume less sodium. In 1979, a committee advising the Food and Drug Administration concluded that salt should no longer be considered "generally recognized as safe." Since 1980, six successive editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have advised reducing sodium, and the FDA has urged the industry to voluntarily reduce sodium. In 2003, a joint statement by 39 major health organizations called for a 50 percent reduction of sodium in the food supply within 10 years.
Unfortunately, Congress, the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the food industry have done so little that Americans are actually consuming more sodium than we were 30 years ago. Three-fourths of that sodium comes from packaged and processed foods. According to our research, some meals at restaurants like Denny's or IHOP provide as much as three or four times the sodium an adult should consume in a whole day.
While America dithered, the British government commenced a comprehensive campaign that began with advertisements to convince the public that cutting salt intake was important. But the core of the effort was to pressure manufacturers and restaurants to lower sodium levels. Multinational companies such as Kraft, PepsiCo, and McDonald's are cooperating.
Last month, New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, backed by other local and state health departments, announced a voluntary program modeled on the British one. Unfortunately, only a handful of companies agreed to participate. Also last month, a committee of the Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, urged the FDA to require companies to gradually lower sodium levels to cut consumption without offending consumers' taste buds.
The ball is in the Obama administration's court. The FDA and USDA could simply follow the example of its predecessors and ask companies to, pretty please, reduce sodium levels. Or it could follow the IOM's advice and regulate. After all, a jetliner's worth of fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, are dying every day.
Read why governmental regulation of sodium is a bad idea, by John Tate, president of the Campaign for Liberty and the national political director of Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign.