by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Salt

Mar 12 2019

RIP The Salt Institute

I never thought I would live to see this day, but the Salt Institute announced that it is ending operations at the end of this month.

I first learned about the Institute in the late 1980s when I was Senior Policy Advisor to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) editing the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health.  The Institute visited us regularly to try to discourage the report from advising “eat less salt.”

Since then, the Salt Institute has been relentless in following the industry playbook to:

  • Cast doubt on science linking high salt intake to disease risk
  • Argue that the current high levels of salt intake are just fine for health
  • Maintain that only a small portion of the population is salt-sensitive
  • Promote science arguing that low salt intake is harmful

The Institute has a lot to answer for.  It has been responsible for confusing the science and creating a most peculiar situation: noisy public debate about salt science while every expert committee examining the relationship of salt to health concludes that we should be consuming much less.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the most recent and most authoritative review of salt and health came out just a few days before the Institute’s announcement .  That review by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine reaffirmed what Dietary Guidelines have been saying for years: the upper recommended limit of sodium intake is 2300 milligrams per day, or about 6 grams of salt (a bit more than a teaspoon).

On average, Americans consume much more and, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has demonstrated for years, single restaurant meals easily exceed that much.

CSPI’s former director, Michael Jacobson, issued a statement.

It might seem the stuff of satire that there is a trade association devoted to defending the amount of salt in our food supply—which contributes to hypertension and cardiovascular disease—and on our roads.  Or at least there wasthe Salt Institute will close its doors at the end of this month. And it will not be missed.

Rest in peace.

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Feb 7 2018

Food industry lobbyists running the dietary guidelines?

This tweet certainly got my attention:

It referred to Alex Kotch’s article in the International Business Times about how White House lawyer Donald McGahn has granted a waiver of conflict of interest rules to allow Kailee Tkacz, a former lobbyist for the Snack Food Association and, more recently, for the Corn Refiners Association, to advise the USDA about the forthcoming 2020 dietary guidelines.

Ms. Tkacz also was food policy director for the Corn Refiners Association, which represents producers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

McGahn explained that this waiver would allow Ms. Tkacz “to advise the Secretary of Agriculture and other senior Department officials with respect to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans process.”

He says “it is in the public interest to grant this limited waiver because of Ms. Tkacz’s expertise in the process by which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are issued every five years.”

The dietary guidelines historically have issued recommendations to consume less salt and sugar.  Snack foods are major sources of salt in U.S. diets.  Soft drinks sweetened with HFCS are major sources of sugars.

USDA is the lead agency for the 2020 guidelines.

Want to make some bets on what they will say about salt and sugar (a wild guess: the science isn’t firm enough to suggest eating less of either).

Jun 2 2016

Open for comment: the FDA’s new guidance for voluntary salt reduction

Yesterday, the FDA opened for public comment its long-awaited guidance for industry about reducing salt in processed food products.  The guidance affects about 150 products.  It gives baseline data for those products and sets targets for salt reduction.

Please note that I am using the word salt, not sodium.  The targets are for sodium reduction.  Most dietary sodium comes from salt added to processed foods and pre-prepared foods.  Salt is 40% sodium.  The target dietary intake of 2300 mg sodium comes to just under 6 grams of salt a day, which is not particularly low.  It is, however, lower than current intake levels.

In a blog post, FDA official Susan Mayne said the link between sodium intake and blood pressure is “strong and well documented,” but

In fact, it’s very difficult in the current marketplace NOT to consume too much sodium. The average intake today is over 3,400 milligrams—significantly more than the 2,300 milligram limit recommended by federal guidelines. And it’s not just adults who are eating too much sodium: Children and teens consume more than is recommended.

Vox, for example, provides a terrific chart on the amounts of sodium in foods.  It starts with this:

Susan Mayne goes on to explain that

the FDA assessed the sodium content of thousands of products in the marketplace and engaged with experts in industry, academia, and government to get the best available scientific and technical input. We know that sodium has important functions in many foods, such as taste, texture, and microbial safety… Our approach encourages gradually reducing sodium in the majority of foods that contain it…Moreover, our draft targets apply to processed and prepared foods that are eaten both at home and outside the home.

Despite the voluntary nature of the guidance and the lengthy timeline (up to ten years) for implementation, the makers of processed foods are sure to object.  At their urging, the House committee on appropriations, in draft report language, urged the FDA to postpone guidance on salt until the CDC and Institute of Medicine update the Dietary Reference Intake standards for sodium intake.

The Salt Institute, the trade association for the salt industry, issued a press release charging malpractice:

The issuance today of new “voluntary” sodium reduction mandates by the FDA is tantamount to malpractice and inexcusable in the face of years of scientific evidence showing that population-wide sodium reduction strategies are unnecessary and could be harmful. This effort will limit the food choices of Americans, not increase them as the FDA claims. It will make our food less safe and endanger public health.

In JAMA, CDC Director Thomas Frieden rebuts the scientific arguments point by point and, in my view, demolishes them.  He explains how important this initiative is to public health:

Thirty-nine countries have established sodium targets for foods and meals, with 36 of those adopting voluntary approaches. Setting targets helps create a level playing field for the food industry, supporting reductions already begun by companies such as Walmart, Darden, Unilever, PespsiCo, General Mills, Mars, Nestlé, and others. The United Kingdom set voluntary sodium reduction targets in 2003; from 2003 to 2011 sodium intake decreased 15%. During this same period, average blood pressure decreased, and, following no change in prior years, deaths from ischemic heart disease and stroke decreased by approximately 40% [the reference for this last statement is BMJ Open. 2014;4(4):e004549].

Most people would be healthier cutting down on salt intake.  Food company executives know this.  Politico Morning Agriculture points out that some Big Food companies have joined the public health community in supporting the FDA’s proposal.

The band of strange bedfellows – the American Heart Association, Mars, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Nestlé, PepsiCo, American Public Health Association, Unilever and the Center for Science in the Public Interest – all signed on to a letter last month to Senate Appropriations ag subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran and ranking member Jeff Merkley to support the FDA on sodium. Find that here.

From a public health perspective, the FDA initiative is a step in the right direction but could go further.  It should have required mandatory salt reduction.  Judging from the Salt Institute’s reaction, this is still a big step.  The New York Times quotes Michael Jacobson:

“The F.D.A. found a sweet spot between doing nothing and regulating…This will at least give the public benchmarks against which we can gauge sodium content of foods.”

FDA resources:  

Apr 25 2016

Has Mars joined the food movement?

Mars, the very same company that has been trying for years to position chocolate as a health food, appears to be joining the food movement, and big time.

Take a look at its GMO disclosure statement on the back of this package of M&Ms.

IMG_20160421_1822202

If it’s too small to read, the statement is in between MARS and the green Facts Up Front labels)

PARTIALLY PRODUCED WITH

GENETIC ENGINEERING

And this is before Vermont’s GMO labeling rules come into effect in July.

Mars also has come out in support of the FDA’s proposals on voluntary sodium reduction.  The company explains that through its “new global Health and Wellbeing Ambition,

Mars Food will help consumers differentiate and choose between “everyday” and “occasional” options. To maintain the authentic nature of the recipe, some Mars Food products are higher in salt, added sugar or fat. As these products are not intended to be eaten daily, Mars Food will provide guidance to consumers on-pack and on its website regarding how often these meal offerings should be consumed within a balanced diet. The Mars Food website will be updated within the next few months with a list of “occasional” products – those to be enjoyed once per week – and a list of “everyday” products – including those to be reformulated over the next five years to reduce sodium, sugar, or fat.

Last year, the company supported the FDA’s proposal to require added sugars labeling with a Daily Value percentage on the Nutrition Facts panel.

It also said it would stop using artificial dyes in its candies.

How to interpret these actions?  I’m guessing they mean that the movement for good, clean, fair food has gained enough traction to put long-established food brands on notice: make your products healthier for people and the environment, or else.

Mar 2 2016

National Restaurant Association gets judge to delay New York City’s salt warning

Grub Street reports that an appeals court has just delayed New York City’s salt warning label.

Oddly, this follows what happened just a few days ago when a state judge denied the National Restaurant Association’s lawsuit to block the warnings.

The NRA is relentless about such things.  Recall how it opposed, successfully, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to cap soda sizes at 16 ounces.

The Daily News says nothing will happen on the salt warning until a March 18 hearing before judges at the Appellate Division in Manhattan.

Because most salt in American diets is put into foods by chefs and food processors, the warning label could alert consumers to the huge amounts of salt they add.  Many foods and meals will be affected.  No wonder the NRA doesn’t like it.

That organization ends up on the wrong side of public health all too often.  It needs to back off on this one.

Oct 13 2015

Salt warning labels coming to New York City, December 1

Last month, the New York City Board of Health voted to require chain restaurants to publish warnings when menu items contain more than the recommended daily limit for sodium, thus taking the lead on regulating the amount of salt in foods.

Salt, says the city health department, is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease but also a leading driver of health disparities: blood pressure levels are higher in African-American populations.

The rule, which takes effect December 1, says that chains with 15 or more locations in New York City must display a warning symbol — a salt shaker inside a triangle — if the item has more than 2,300 milligrams of salt.

The policy does not restrict choice or limit how much sodium can be in food.

The New York State Restaurant Association (NRA) called the new rule “burdensome.”

It issued a statement:

This is just the latest in a long litany of superfluous hoops that restaurants here in New York must jump through…Every one of these cumbersome new laws makes it tougher and tougher for restaurants to find success.

The health department estimates the regulation will apply to 10 percent of all menu items.  Some examplesof affected products (For the record, 40% of salt is sodium; for grams of salt multiply by 2.5):

  • Panera Bread Smokehouse Turkey Panini (2,590 mg),                  “
  • TGI Friday’s sesame jack chicken strips (2,700 mg)
  • Regular-size Applebee’s Grilled Shrimp ‘n Spinach Salad (2,990 mg)
  • Subway footlong spicy Italian sub (2,980 mg)
  • Red Robin monster-size salted caramel milkshake (3,400 mg)

But the Salt Institute, a salt producers’ trade group, called the policy “misguided”:

This is another example of the government creating policy based on outdated, incorrect sodium guidelines that have been refuted by ten years of research. Research shows Americans already eat within the safe range of sodium consumption and population-wide sodium reduction strategies are unnecessary and could be harmful,” said Lori Roman, President of the Salt Institute.

The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest said the proposed warnings “will prompt restaurants to use less salt and will help consumers reduce their risk of stroke or heart attack.”

This one will be interesting to watch.  Will people pay attention?  Will chain restaurants take steps to reduce sodium levels?  Will hypertension levels decline?  I hope researchers are hard at work collecting baseline data.

May 20 2015

Case study on why regulation matters: salt reduction in the UK

Thanks to Courtney Scott, a doctoral student at University of North Carolina, for sending me this account of the fate of Britain’s salt reduction strategies, published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal).

The lead author on the article is Dr. Graham MacGregor, Britain’s leading advocate for diets lower in salt.  It is about the derailing of Britain’s remarkable successful salt reduction strategy.

Under the auspices of Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), the salt reduction program initiated in the early 2000s—getting companies to slowly but steadily reduce the salt in their products—was working well.

Most impressive: salt intake, blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke declined in parallel with the decline in salt in the food supply.

But in 2010, Britain elected a more conservative government.

Andrew Lansley was appointed secretary of state for health, and he moved the responsibility for nutrition from the FSA to the Department of Health. This disrupted the salt reduction programme, making it unclear who would be responsible for the policy. In 2011 Lansley launched the responsibility deal, whereby he made the alcohol and food industries responsible for reducing alcohol consumption and improving nutrition, respectively. As a result, salt reduction lost momentum.

The key points of the article:

  • Most of the foods that industry currently provide are very high in salt, fat, and sugars and are therefore more likely to cause cardiovascular disease and predispose to cancer than healthier alternatives.

  • The UK’s salt reduction programme…led to a significant reduction in population salt intake, accompanied by reductions in blood pressure and cardiovascular mortality.

  • The programme has been set back by the coalition government’s decision to hand power back to the food industry as part of the responsibility deal.

  • An independent agency for nutrition with a transparent monitoring programme is urgently needed to improve the food that we eat.

As I’ve explained previously, most salt—80% or more—in American diets is already in processed and prepared foods when they are presented to us.  That’s where the salt reduction has to come from.  As the authors explain,

Members of the food industry have said that they are keen to reformulate their foods to make them healthier. All they require is to be on a “level playing field” with the other major companies, so that they can make their foods healthier in a structured, incremental way. They need to be assured that there are proper reporting mechanisms in place and that all of the companies are being monitored equally. Enforcement is required, and if it doesn’t work, regulation or legislation must be enacted.

The debates over salt may be the most contentious in the field of nutrition (as the Washington Post puts it), but the parallels between the British decline in salt intake and in salt-related disease are impressive.

On a population basis, eating less salt is healthier.

This is something you can’t easily do on your own.  The food industry has to do it.  And food companies don’t want to, for obvious reasons.

Hence: the need for regulation.

Dec 11 2014

Congress again micromanages nutrition standards

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, is again using the appropriations process to micromanage nutrition standards for school meals and the WIC program, against the advice of the Institute of Medicine and other health experts.

The new appropriations bill includes several provisions relevant to issues I discuss frequently here.  By all reports, this is the best that can be expected, given the makeup of this Congress.

  • Section 751 grants exemptions to states from the whole grain requirements for school meals “Provided, That school food authorities demonstrate hardship…in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements (my translation: forget whole grains and recommendations by health experts.  They are way too much trouble).
  • Section 752 says that no federal funds may be used to pay the salaries of people doing work “that would require a reduction in the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods, and snacks sold in schools…until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children (We know more about the effects of salt on health than do health professionals and expert committees).
  • Section 753 says Congress won’t pay the salaries of anybody who tries to “exclude or restrict, he eligibility of any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables (except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils) from being provided under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (no, you can’t keep white potatoes out of the WIC program).

Chalk these up to effective lobbying by the School Nutrition Association, makers of salty snacks, and the potato lobby.

The good news, such as it is:

  • Congress did not roll back most of the USDA’s food standards for school meals.
  • It only cut SNAP by $400 million.
  • It only cut WIC by $93 million.

These must be considered enormous victories, given the circumstances.

Addition, December 12:  The Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

On the provision to require the availability of white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Vilsack said, “With all due respect to the politicians who make the law, I have more confidence in pediatricians and more confidence in medical science than in political science.”