Pillars of Salt

Salt: Can We Live with Less of It?

A long, long time ago, the FDA proposed voluntary goals for reducing salt in processed, packaged, and prepared foods. But that was 2016 and a new administration came the following year with less interest in this subject. So naturally, this went nowhere. It took little more than this idea coming from the Obama team to seal its fate.

But there’s a new sheriff in town and he seems to be busy undoing the undoing of government policies – with a particular focus on health. So does this mean we will be living with less salty food from the industries that feed us?

Salt Reduction Seems to Work for Health

This concept has a lot going for it. First of all, the proposal is for voluntary reductions. So it’s not a case of bringing in the heavy hand of government. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that it’s already working in other countries.

For example, the UK rolled out a voluntary salt reduction program way back in 2003. Salt content in prepared and processed foods went down by quite a bit. In some foods, the reductions were on the order of 50 percent. But it was gradual. So the population came along without much controversy. Over seven years, the entire population reduced its use of salt by 15 percent.

That might not sound like much, but in parallel with these reductions, blood pressure came down. So too did deaths from heart disease and strokes. In similar fashion, Finland has been pursuing a salt reduction strategy since the 1970s with much success. Likewise, the population’s blood pressure has come down along with sodium in the diet.

Less of a Fractious Fight?

Fights about food policy can be nasty and unproductive. However, experience with efforts to reduce sodium give us reasons to think this one could be less fractious. The effort in the UK was voluntary. The food industry might have squawked a bit along the way, but overall they got with the program and made it work. Gradual implementation helped consumer palates adapt so that most people never noticed.

Another reason this should be doable is because we have good evidence that it will yield better health outcomes. This is in sharp contrast with the situation for sugar sweetened beverages. After two decades of declining SSB consumption, we’ve yet to see benefits show up in health outcomes.

Much of the sodium we consume comes from industry – the businesses that prepare, process, and package most of the food we eat. Voluntary sodium reduction looks like a potential win for industry, for government, and for all of us who value better health.

We hope the new administration will get on with it.

Click here for further perspective on reducing the sodium in our food supply. Click here and here for more on the experience in the UK. For an up-to-date review of salt reduction to prevent cardiovascular disease, click here.

Pillars of Salt, painting by Natalia Goncharova / WikiArt

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February 1, 2021

4 Responses to “Salt: Can We Live with Less of It?”

  1. February 01, 2021 at 7:12 am, Al Lewis said:

    While salt could never be considered a health food, most people are better off reaching for a salty snack than a sweet one.

    The effect of salt on morbidity varies greatly from person to person, whereas very few of us don’t risk diabetes when we over-indulge in sugar.

    In the ideal world, people would reduce their consumption of both. But if I had to recommend a focus on one or the other, i’d vote for sugar.

    • February 01, 2021 at 11:48 am, Ted said:

      U.S. Trends in Sugar Consumption and Obesity

      Al, I understand why you might think we would all be better off if we cut back on sugar. Sadly though, the population of the U.S. has been cutting back on sugar for two decades now and yet, obesity keeps going up.

      On the other hand, Finland and the UK cut back on salt consumption and saw the rate of cardiovascular disease in each country drop. So I have a hard time agreeing that cutting sugar will do more to improve population health than cutting salt. Geoff, I encourage you to read more about the data on the effects of reduced salt consumption here: http://doi.org//10.1016/j.jacc.2019.11.055

  2. February 01, 2021 at 8:04 am, Geoff Smith said:

    It would not surprise me if no health benfits were found from declines in sodium intakes in the same way that none have been found after two decades of decline in sugar intakes in the US from SSBs. Based on evidence to date https://academic.oup.com/eurheartj/advance-article/doi/10.1093/eurheartj/ehaa947/6044174?login=true .

  3. February 01, 2021 at 5:52 pm, Al Lewis said:

    I suspect there is some other X factor, likely multiple X factors, at work here.