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Targeting Sodium
Why salt is coming under fire.
Salt is under fire.

While quick-serves are patting themselves on the backs for phasing out trans fats, which have been linked to coronary heart disease and have fast become a dietary pariah, concerns about another prominent fast-food ingredient are also gaining a voice.

On March 28, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed the comment period following a November public hearing about its policies regarding salt and sodium content in food. The hearing came after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) submitted a citizen petition asking the FDA to change the regulatory status of salt, require limits on salt in processed foods, and require health messages related to salt and sodium.

“We’re hoping the FDA revokes the status of salt as ‘generally recognized as safe,’“ says Julie Greenstein, deputy director of health promotion policy for the CSPI. “We believe it’s one of the deadliest ingredients in food right now.”

But sodium, which compounded with chloride creates salt, is also a necessary part of the human diet. As an electrolyte, it’s responsible for water balance and the regulation of plasma in the blood stream.

“The problem is that we get too much of it,” says Elizabeth Schaub, an outpatient dietitian at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, in Texas. The FDA recommends adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, or about a teaspoon of salt. On average, though, most adults get around 4,000 milligrams per day, Schaub says. That excessive consumption can lead to hypertension, stroke, and other cardiovascular disease.

“Research indicates that decreasing sodium consumption by half can save 150,000 lives per year,” Greenstein says. If the FDA changes the status of sodium from “generally recognized as safe” to a food additive, the administration will be able to regulate its use in food products. The administration rejected that approach in 1982, and if it fails again, Greenstein says the CSPI plans to work with Congress and state and local health departments to make legislative changes to help curb excessive sodium consumption.

That could affect restaurants. A typical fast-food meal can contain more than half of the current recommended sodium intake, Schaub says, and food at full-service restaurants isn’t much different.

Even so, says Sheila Weiss, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association (NRA), restaurants shouldn’t be required to reduce the sodium content of their food. For starters, sodium isn’t always something restaurants can control, and eliminating or reducing levels in food won’t be as easy as cutting out trans fats. Labor shortages in the industry have forced some restaurants to turn to convenience products, such as pre-prepared soups and sauces, to save time, Weiss says. Those products come from suppliers and contain sodium as a preservative. Removing or lowering the sodium levels, in such cases, could raise food safety concerns, she says.

There’s also the issue of consumer preference.

Consumers really associate salt and sodium with taste. The last thing that the food industry wants to compromise is taste.”

“Consumers really associate salt and sodium with taste,” Weiss says. “The last thing that the food industry wants to compromise is taste.”

Voluntary efforts are a better way to cut sodium levels, she says. Some quick-serves already give customers the option to order fries without added salt, chefs are increasingly turning to other seasonings to add flavor, and restaurants are working with suppliers to reduce sodium in packaged foods, she says.

The NRA submitted comments to the FDA on the Petition to Revise the Regulatory Status of Salt and Establish Food Labeling Requirements Regarding Salt and Sodium, but there’s no telling how long the administration will take to issue a ruling.

In the meantime, though, Schaub says there are steps restaurants can take to help customers reduce their sodium intake. She suggests using fresh or fruits and vegetables instead of canned varieties in food preparation and including voluntary menu labeling to educate consumers about the sodium content of foods.