Why is the federal government - so consistently wrong yet never unsure of itself - intent on making life less savory? The new salt guidelines, which are voluntary for now, are based on bad science and worse public policy.
“The Obama administration is prodding food manufacturers and restaurants to sharply reduce salt in their products, saying that Americans need to cut their consumption by a third and can’t do it simply by putting down the salt shaker,” the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. “The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday issued draft guidelines that would set voluntary targets for an array of foods, an effort to help consumers decrease salt intake from an average 3,400 milligrams a day now to 3,000 mg in two years and 2,300 mg in a decade. Such changes, federal health officials said, are supported by ‘overwhelming’ scientific evidence and would save thousands of lives in the years to come.”
That’s not true.
Here’s what Scientific American reported in 2011: “A meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure.”
The magazine went on to conclude, “These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.”
That hasn’t stopped the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) from applauding the fed’s move, and calling for even more draconian action.
“If companies achieved the FDA’s proposed targets, it would have a huge benefit for the public’s health,” CSPI president Michael F. Jacobson told ABC News. “If companies don’t achieve these voluntary targets, it would be clear that mandatory limits will be necessary to reach safe sodium levels.”
Let’s take a moment and look at the FDA’s record on food recommendations.
Take eggs, for instance. Just last year, the nation’s top nutrition advisory panel dropped its “caution about eating cholesterol-laden food, a move that could undo almost 40 years of government warnings about its consumption,” the Washington Post reported.
“The group’s finding that cholesterol in the diet need no longer be considered a nutrient of concern stands in contrast to the committee s findings five years ago, the last time it convened,” the newspaper explained. “During those proceedings, as in previous years, the panel deemed the issue of excess cholesterol in the American diet a public health concern. The finding follows an evolution of thinking among many nutritionists who now believe that, for healthy adults, eating foods high in cholesterol may not significantly affect the level of cholesterol in the blood or increase the risk of heart disease.”
For four decades, Americans suffered the indignity of the egg-white omelet.
“Where nutrition has some trouble,” one researcher told the Post last year, “is all the confidence and vitriol and moralism that goes along with our recommendations.”
So take those recommendations with a grain of humility.