FDA’s Salt Phobia a Waste of Money

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week plans to phase in “voluntary” reduction in the level of sodium in foods produced by manufacturers and served in restaurants. I have “voluntary” in quotes because, despite the lack of an official regulation, pressure from an agency that could make it impossible for a business to stay in business is about as voluntary as putting a gun to someone’s head.

Since the 1980s the FDA has recommended that Americans reduce their daily intake of sodium as a way to prevent the risk of high blood pressure, strokes, and other problems. But their constant harping on the sodium issue has done nothing to convince consumers to change. In fact, the level of sodium consumption hasn’t changed since the 1950s. It has remained steadily at an average of about 3,700 milligrams per day. And it’s not just Americans—that level is consistent among humans around the globe.

McCarron led a 2009 study that analyzed urine samples in 19,151 people in 33 countries over a 24-year period. The average daily sodium intake was 3,726 milligrams a day, even across diverse populations and diets, and with no evidence of change over time. In a 12-year study of more than 13,000 people from Switzerland, also published in 2009, people averaged around 3,680 milligrams a day. "It's spooky how consistent this number is," said McCarron.

According to the FDA, however, this level is way too high—about a third more than the upper limit of government recommendations. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said she believes the voluntary reductions “can make a big impact.” However, the evidence makes it highly likely that there won’t be any impact at all on sodium consumption levels.

Clinical research has found that when they tried to reduce peoples’ sodium consumption they naturally found ways to eat more salt. Researchers found that people “are naturally inclined to regulate salt intake to physiologically determined levels by unconsciously selecting foods to meet their needs—and even the most extreme interventions don’t do much.”

So, what will happen if FDA gets its way and forces industry to reformulate products with less sodium? Likely, nothing good. People will add salt or seek out saltier foods in order to reach their own physiologically determined equilibrium. A waste of the FDA’s time and food companies’ and consumers’ money. And as for the voluntary part, as Michael Jacobson of the inaccurately named Center for Science in the Public Interest noted, it very well could become mandatory if companies don’t comply. If that happens he says, “[t]hen FDA should start a process of mandatory limits.” 

CSPI, Margaret Hamburg, and other self-styled public health advocates can believe all they want that their efforts will make people healthier, but mere “belief” makes for bad policy and even worse science.