July 10 2012
Take Government Health Advice with a Pinch of Salt
Mayor Bloomberg’s recent decision to outlaw the Big Gulp in New York City in the name of promoting public health made news headlines as well as fodder for some pretty scathing one-liners from the late night comedians. But this is no laughing matter.
While Americans instantly saw the stupidity of such easily skirted regulations (one can just get a free refill or purchase two smaller-sized drinks) they shouldn’t dismiss Mayor Bloomberg’s actions as just the folly of one eccentric politician. In fact, one reason to oppose such efforts (beyond the obvious fact that it’s far outside scope of government to act as the nation’s Weight Watchers sponsor) is that these regulations are completely ineffective and based on dubious and outdated science.
Take the federal government’s oversight of salt--an ingredient Mayor Bloomberg has also tried to vilify. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration – the federal agency with regulatory authority over American food manufacturers – invited the public to comment on the agency’s planned “approaches to reducing sodium consumption.” The FDA received hundreds of comments, the majority of which opposed government meddling in this area.
Many of the negative comments centered on the agency’s reliance on dated and inaccurate information about sodium in the American diet. One glaring example of this was present in the very invitation for comments, in which the FDA cited a 2005 study to claim that “research” shows sodium to be “contributory factor in the development of hypertension, which is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.” More recent studies contradict that 2005 study and many of the other studies on which the FDA relies.
Here are just a few: In 2006, the American Journal of Medicine published a study of 78 million Americans which concluded that the “evidence linking sodium intake to mortality outcomes is scant and inconsistent.” Similar results were shown in a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology which found that “salt intake was not consistently related to CVD [cardiovascular disease] or mortality in our study” but that an “increased risk of mortality was observed for high salt intake in overweight Finnish subjects.” This seems to back up a Swedish study conducted in 2011 and published in the journal Nature in which researchers found factors other than salt had an impact on a subject’s blood pressure; in this case, genetic factors. To some, this might seem like commons sense. One doesn’t need a study to understand that multiple factors impact a person’s blood pressure -- obesity, exercise, genetics, dietary habits and other lifestyle choices.
More recent studies are actually warning against sodium reduction. In a study released last year and published in the American Journal of Hypertension, two Danish researchers who analyzed 167 other studies on salt actually warned that “the ‘science’ on which the FDA policy on sodium reduction is based is dubious” and that “the present recommendations may kill people instead of saving them.”
Additional evidence pointing to the danger of limiting salt was just revealed in a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension in which researchers examined 23 separate studies on the eating habits of some 360,000 individuals. In the surprising results, the researchers actually found those who consumed low levels of sodium had more negative health outcomes than those who ate ahigh-salt diet. The most critical bit of information to emerge from this study was that the individuals with the lowest mortality rate consumed between one and 2.5 teaspoons of salt a day—a range above what the FDA currently advises Americans to consume. The study warned that sodium levels below or above the range identified in the study puts a person at risk for disease.
Yet despite these impressive new studies, the FDA continues to push for regulations on this singular item—salt. In fact, in May 2012, the agency reaffirmed its intention to regulate salt by including in its 2012 - 2016 strategic plan the goal to “reduce sodium content in the food supply” in order to help consumers “choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease…”
This goal contradicts the FDA’s own mission statement which states that the agency is “responsible for advancing the public health by… helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to maintain and improve their health.”
The FDA is therefore in violation of its mission when it refuses to consider the new research—science-based information—on salt. It begs the question: why is the FDA dangerously and aggressively pushing Americans to reduce their salt intake when the latest research clearly indicates their levels are perfectly healthy? Why does the FDA continue to promote the latest Dietary Guidelines which tell Americans to consume less than one teaspoon of salt a day—an amount considered dangerous by the new research?
There is a simple yet depressing answer to those questions: regulation has become paramount to public health. The FDA’s refusal to consider the latest research on salt proves without a doubt the agency is driven by a political agenda; not science.
While Americans might view these food regulations as silly inconveniences or the pet-projects of a particular politician, they must understand that these efforts erode our basic freedoms and just might be making us less healthy. Individuals must be in charge of their own food decisions and their own health by consulting with their doctors to determine what’s best for them and their families. As the FDA and certain politicians have shown, government’s one-size-fits-all solutions are too often guided by politics, not science.
Julie Gunlock is the director of Women for Food Freedom (a project of the Independent Women's Forum).