The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

What’s going on with salt?

What’s going on with salt?

The Food Journal

March 4, 2014

The Current Guidelines: Focus on Labeling:

According to the FDA’s Food Facts: Using the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake, the “%DV for sodium is based on 100% of the recommended amount of sodium, which is less than 2400 milligrams (mg) per day.” The FDA urges consumers to use the Percent Daily Value (%DV) to compare products. For example, the %DV tells you whether a food contributes a little or a lot to your total daily diet.

•  5%DV (120 mg) or less of sodium per serving is low

•  20%DV (480 mg) or more of sodium per serving is high

The 2014 FDA proposed changes in the Dietary Value of sodium are less significant than some would like from 2400 to 2300 mg of sodium. Nutritional Labeling appears to be more of the focus. On February 27, 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama joined Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to “announce proposed revisions to the Nutrition Facts label, which has been significantly updated only once since its initial release twenty years ago.” The FDA’s Proposed Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label are “based on a greater understanding of nutrition science.”  

The new proposed labeling can be viewed in the documents, Proposed label/What’s Different and Serving Size Changes. 

"Since the announcement, I have run some numbers on a few different cheeses, and the proposed Daily Value change in sodium won’t really change a whole lot; a percentage point here and there," explains Michelle Motto, International Dairy Food Association Nutrition Consultant. "I think the format with the DV to the left of the label will cause people to look at nutrition information as a whole differently, not just sodium. There are cheese makers, regardless of this new Daily Value change, who were already interested at looking at what they can do to reduce the sodium in their products. Those efforts will still be going on because they have the customers for lower sodium products.”

The Medical World:

It is difficult for consumers to have definitive information about how much salt should be in their diets when there are conflicting reports. In 2013, the Institute of Medicine issued the report Sodium Intake in Populations: Assessment of Evidence which while on one hand produced evidence to support efforts to reduce sodium intake, it also raised concerns that low sodium intake could “adversely affect certain risk factors including blood lipids and insulin resistance, and this potentially increases risk of heart disease and stroke.” This is also confirmed in the Harvard study, Low-salt diet increases insulin resistance in healthy subjects. Extensive studies have also been done by Michael Alderman, M.D., the Editor of the American Journal of Hypertension, showing that cardiac patients on low salt diets have a higher number of cardiac events. 

The Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) issued the 2005 report Killer Salt showing staggering amounts of sodium levels in processed foods on the market. (The title is taken from Killer Salt, an original book published in 1977, and written by Marietta Whittlesey) “If we could knock sodium levels in half, that would save about 100,000 lives a year,” concludes Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of CSPI.  “Salt is not a little contaminant. It’s a blockbuster. We base our conclusions on scientific evidence and with sodium, it’s crystal clear. Practically every health agency in the world has identified salt as a problem.” Interview with Michael Jacobson, Executive Director, Center for Science in Public Interest

Lori Roman, President of the Salt Institute, says, “There is no basis in science for this activism going on against a single ingredient that is so essential for life.” Roman says that doctors and researchers who were once the recipients of scorn if they talked about research that conflicted with the government guidelines are now getting noisy about the benefits of salt. “They are not as concerned about their reputations being attacked because there is so much science on their side,” explains Roman. Roman also looks to animal nutrition to learn about salt intake for humans. “Ranchers who want to fatten up their livestock reduce the sodium content of the food. For the animal, the natural biological instinct for salt will make them eat more calories to get up to the natural sodium level that they need,” says Lori. “If you want to make your animal eat less, you increase the sodium content of the food so they will eat less food to get to their sodium satisfaction level. We need to take what we have learned from animals and see if a low salt diet makes you eat more calories and therefore contributes to obesity.” Interview with Lori Roman, President, The Salt Institute

But what about the taste?

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Tips on Being a Smart Shopper simply suggests consumers choose foods that say sodium free, very low sodium, low sodium, reduced or less sodium light in sodium or unsalted. Choosemyplate.gov offers ten tips to help consumers cut back on sodium such as choose dairy and protein foods that are low in sodium. But it’s still the products on supermarket shelves that dictate salt’s course.

While ConAgra Foods plans to reduce sodium by 20 percent by 2015 across its entire portfolio of food products, Campbell’s sales went down with a sodium reduction so they put the sodium back in. Michael Jacobson of CSPI explains government regulation would make a level playing field between competitors versus a voluntary lowering of sodium. “The problem with voluntary is companies may feel if they lower sodium it would affect the taste of food and competitors who would not lower sodium will have better tasting products.”