by Marion Nestle
Mar 19 2011

The latest on the salt restriction politics

The New York City Health Department announces good news and bad news.  The good news is that seven companies have agreed to reduce the salt in their products.  The bad news:

  • The average sodium intake in New York is 3.1 grams (2.3 grams is recommended for people who are not at risk of hypertension; for those who are, it’s 1.5 grams )
  • 79% of New Yorkers exceed sodium recommendations
  • 89% of New Yorkers at high risk of hypertension exceed sodium recommendations

Reminder: salt is 40% sodium.  This means that 3.1 grams of sodium is equivalent to nearly 8 grams of salt (two teaspoons).

The health department is working hard to bring restaurants and packaged food companies on board with salt reduction initiatives.  Packaged foods are easier (they have to label the amount of sodium).  The salt in restaurant foods is up to the chef, and one meal can easily exceed recommended levels for a day.

As for the effect of such efforts on food companies, has compiled its recent pieces on salt restriction, all from the viewpoint of industry:

Salt restriction could increase risk of iodine deficiency: Restricting salt intake could increase risk of iodine deficiency, particularly among women, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Hypertension…

Mandatory sodium reduction 20 times more effective, finds study: Imposing mandatory sodium limits for processed foods could be 20 times as effective as voluntary reduction measures, suggests a new study published in the journal Heart…

Review shows steady US sodium consumption: Rising obesity rates may be a more important factor for hypertension than rising sodium consumption, claim the authors of a new study that suggests US sodium intake has remained relatively constant over the past 50 years…

Food makers look to umami as they cut sodium, says Bell Flavors: Food manufacturers are increasingly looking to boost the taste of their products with mouth-filling umami-type flavors as they reduce sodium in their products, according to Bell Flavors and Fragrances…

Concerted industry effort needed for sodium reduction: In order to cut sodium from American diets food manufacturers must work in unison to reduce sodium in their products – and their efforts have gained momentum, according to major industry players…

Packaged food makers have to label the sodium in their products

  • I’m all for local, state, and federal governments enforcing policies requiring “healthier” food. So this makes me happy.

    But I am more than a little curious about why they chose sodium to go after. There are so many more things that they can regulate – fat content, calorie content, sugar content, etc.

    They want to reduce the obesity epidemic, but it seems more like they’re treating the symptoms (high blood pressue, hypertension, etc, etc) than the cause.

    So…why sodium?

    Feel free to check out my own weight loss blog here: Just Another Weight Loss Blog

  • I can get on board for an industry sponsored salt reduction for prepackaged, processed foods. The salt added to those foods is not usually iodized salt, and won’t contribute to iodine deficiency.

    But I do not agree with the government requiring restaurants to restrict salt. When I go out for a meal, I’m paying in part for the chef’s expertise and artistry in seasoning food. To me, telling a chef how much salt he can use is the same as telling an artist how much blue he can use.

  • Hannah

    Sodium causes high blood pressure, In fact its the major cause of high blood pressure, which is one the biggest causes of preventable death worldwide. Why go after sodium? Because it’s largely unneccessary in our foods, it’s one of the easiest things that can be changed by the industry. Yes you may think it makes food taste nicer, but your taste buds adapt quickly and after a few weeks less sodium would have the same taste effect…

    Sodium is hidden everywhere! fast food, prepared meals, soup, salad dressings, bread, breakfast cereal to name a few. So it’s important to reduce it as even people who think they are being healthy could be exceeding recommendations.

    Also, sodium increases thirst. this increase how much you drink. Many people only drink soft drinks and other high calorie drinks. Therefore sodium can in an indirect way also contribute to obesity!

  • Joe

    Let me preface by saying the posts and discussion are always thought provoking. Yet there is one facet that is routinely overlooked. People do what is enjoyable and pleasureable when it comes to how and what they eat.

    Public health officials can fight to their last breath to regulate our diet via regulation or taxation but at the end of the day there are ways around all of that. If I want more salt on my foods I have a salt shaker. If I want to drink sugary beverages I can have as many as I want. If I want to live on french fries I can do so. All of these are based on what people want and desire as part of a free society .

    That being said it is useful to help people understand that their actions and intake may have consequences as relates to health. However most folks already know these things. What I find fascinating is the contempt in which the massses are often held by the learned few.

    The truth is that most people understand the basics of how to eat healthy but in spite of that knowledge eat what they like and find pleasurable for many reasons not rooted in ognorance. Perhaps if more nutrition messages were cast in terms of what people like there would be better buy in by the great unwashed. As it is the reason that the public health messages do not gain wide acceptance is because they come across as arrogant much of the time (Case in point the city of NY trying to regulate salt intake).

  • Anthro


    How is regulating the salt content of food (not the intake–as you point out, people can eat all the salt they want to) “arrogant”?

    I can see where you might disagree with a policy, and that it might be considered paternalistic or overreaching, but–arrogant?

    Also, many public health policies are aimed at children, who are not as well-informed as adults (sometimes). Is it arrogant to protect children from predatory marketing?

    It is difficult to “cast [public health messages] in terms of what people like there would be better buy in by the great unwashed.” People “like” salty food, which is bad for their health. How would you cast this message? I would cast it with industry playing the bad guy by getting people hooked on salty food and require them to change their ways in the interests of public health–which benefits everyone in terms of health care costs. I would not blame the average person who may not realize how much salt really is present in packaged foods (even though that information is on the package).

  • @Hannah

    I know what you’re saying, but take a look at the 3rd link in the blog post. That’s more what I was referring to.

  • Doc Mudd

    I tend to agree with Joe.

    He senses arrogance from food scolds. I find them more sanctimonious, myself.

    Either way, it’s no way to ‘educate’ folks, as Joe points out. Clearly ‘educating’ is not the underlying agenda of these pushy crusaders.

  • Anthro

    Hey, Doc, the food scolds, as you so derisively call them, are the ones looking out for the health of children, so they have a chance at growing up without diabetes by the age of 15. No one is trying to stop you, or Joe, from drowning yourselves in soda or whatever other type of non-food “food” you choose to ingest. Why are your sorts so opposed to the protection of children from the greed of corporations that produce edible substances (food?) and market them to a group who hasn’t yet lived long enough to learn of the inherent dangers of using these products?

    If education (why you put it in quotes is anyone’s guess) is not the agenda of the “pushy crusaders” (public health heroes), just what is their agenda in your view? Really–inquiring minds want to know?

  • Doc Mudd

    Kinda creepy with all the fright and fear and “inherent dangers” lurking everywhere. I will definitely position myself between you and my kids, Anthro. My gut tells me not to let you anywhere near them.

  • Joe

    The inherent arrogance of those in public health is on full display when it is assumed that they are the ones looking out for the children. This is an inaccurate assumption. Parents look out for children not government officials overstating their importance to society. If not parents then grandparents, aunts or uncles do this job. Sure there are children without such family but they are the exception rather than the rule.

    Furthermore since I work in public health I see the beast from the inside flaws and all. The most common flaw is the notion that there is only path to good health which is observably untrue. Many people choosing many different types of foods some of which are even considered unhealthy do not have the assumed diseases.

    Diabetes, heart disease or hypertension often have no known etiology. People of all shapes, sizes and eating habits get these diseases. I hope that at some point in the future this fact will cause a brave few to think outside thier mantras.

  • Julie

    FYI, it’s seven NEW companies. 28 companies are comitted to reducing sodium total.

  • Pingback: Should the Government Impose Laws to Regulate Health? « The Big Picture, The Fine Print()