Once again, the FDA is being urged to regulate the amount of salt found in processed foods.  I have really mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, too much salt has been shown to contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, and premature death and we really should keep an eye on how much we eat.  On the other, is regulation the best way to do this?

The FDA doesn’t have the resources it needs to keep E. coli out of the food supply.  Do we honestly think that it would get more to check the salt content of canned spaghetti sauce? Or would it be forced to divert slaughter-house inspection funds to salt inspections? Would it wind up spreading its resources so thin that our overall food supply becomes less safe?

The complexity of the legislation required would be mind-boggling.  How on earth do you write rules for recipes, when you don’t know how much of any particular dish will be consumed by anyone at any particular time? Each food would have to have it’s own salt number. The research needed, the time and energy going into this would be incredible. Is this something we want our legislators spending their time on? Or would we rather have them focused on something else?

Is regulation necessary? Toughie. Better education could be one alternative.  There are many more trans-fat free products now than there were before we became educated on the evils of trans fats.  I’d be willing to bet (but have no proof right now) that trans-fat consumption has dropped in the last year or two – no regulations necessary (mine has, at least).  Why can’t we do the same with salt? Educate folks so they demand lower salt alternatives, and the manufacturers will have no choice but provide them.

But – unlike trans-fat, salt is a necessary part of our diet. We can’t just eliminate it entirely.  There is a range of consumption that is optimal. In order to stay within that range, we have to keep track of how much we’ve eaten.  That’s really, really hard. Keeping track of calories is hard enough. But think about adding salt to that.  At a restaurant: “Hmmm – I’ve had 800 calories so far today, but that included about 1,000 mg of sodium.  What do you have with about 900 calories and 500 mg of sodium?” If restaurant and other processed food contained less salt to begin with, consumers wouldn’t have to keep track themselves.  ‘Cause right now,  unless you’ve already got a problem, no one keeps track of sodium, even though most folks know they should.

And if I were a manufacturer who wanted to cut back on some of the salt, I’d want the regulations.  Right now, everyone is making processed food with tons of salt, and that’s what consumers expect. Less salty products taste weird in comparison. People would have one bite and go to the competition. But if all manufacturers were cutting back on added salt, everyone’s products would taste equally weird until the consumer’s taste buds recalibrated.  It would level the playing field.

Potentially, 100,000 deaths could be prevented each year if people didn’t consume as much salt as they do now.  Regulations that forced food manufacturers to eliminate some salt from their recipes could save lives. Maybe. Who knows really?  Would people simply start using more salt at the table than they do now and bring up their consumption even more?

Hmmph. Another alternative: avoid processed foods altogether. Umm – except that a lot of things used in cooking – bacon, canned tomatoes, etc – have salt added.  Its unavoidable.


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Filed under diet, healthy lifestyle

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