Salt limits urged for processed foods, restaurant meals
■ The AMA and others recommend that the FDA follow the example of nations that restrict the level of sodium in foods.
By Susan J. Landers — Posted Dec. 24, 2007
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Washington -- Reducing the amount of salt in America's diet would go a long way toward lowering our collective blood pressure, according to AMA testimony before a Nov. 29 hearing of the Food and Drug Administration.
The Association joined with others in asking the agency to set strict limits on the levels of salt in processed foods and restaurant meals and to remove salt from the list of foods that generally are considered to be safe.
The consumption of excessive amounts of sodium is one of the main causes for the rise in blood pressure that accompanies aging, said Stephen Havas, MD, MPH, the AMA's vice president for Science, Quality and Public Health. The progressive rise leads to a 90% lifetime probability of developing hypertension and its accompanying risks for heart attacks and strokes, he added.
Dr. Havas testified for the AMA in support of a petition brought to the FDA by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition and public health advocacy group that has been trying for decades to draw the FDA's attention to the risks of too much salt.
Most of the abundance of sodium, which now totals two to three times what is considered appropriate, in the average American's diet does not come from overused salt shakers in home kitchens. Rather, it comes from food manufacturers and restaurants putting it there, Dr. Havas said.
To eliminate this health threat, the AMA recommended a 50% reduction in the sodium content of processed foods, fast food and restaurant meals over the next decade. Improved labeling, it said, also could help consumers make healthier choices.
"The AMA is confident the implementation of these recommendations would reduce sodium intake, result in a better educated consumer, and eventually lower the incidence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in this country, saving countless lives," Dr. Havas said.
Other nations are far ahead of the U.S. in addressing this issue, he noted. Finland began a major campaign more than 30 years ago using warning labels for foods high in sodium. Since then, Finnish sodium consumption has decreased by 40%, and average blood pressure has dropped by more than 8 mm Hg -- "a huge decrease for a population," Dr. Havas said. Also, age-adjusted cardiovascular disease mortality rates in Finland are down more than 80%.
The United Kingdom began a campaign about five years ago aimed at the food industry and the public to reduce sodium intake, he said. Many U.K. companies voluntarily adopted a red-yellow-green traffic light system on the fronts of packages indicating the amount of sodium in a product.
Dr. Havas said there is no evidence the safety or quality of food in those countries has been adversely affected by the lowered sodium content.