The most recent Dietary Guidelines declared that cholesterol is “no longer a nutrient of concern.” Yup, after nearly 40 years of warning people away from egg yolks, the government folks finally checked the actual science and then sort of admitted being wrong. It was a step forward. But, government being what it is, I suppose a corresponding step backwards was inevitable. Here are some quotes from a recent article in The Chicago Tribune:
The Obama administration is pressuring the food industry to make foods from breads to sliced turkey less salty, proposing long-awaited sodium guidelines in an effort to prevent thousands of deaths each year from heart disease and stroke.
So the Obama administration must have solid scientific evidence that reducing sodium in food products will prevent heart attacks and strokes … just like the First Lady must have solid evidence that telling kids “Let’s Move!” and cutting the fat and calories in their school lunches will reduce obesity. But we’ll come back to the salt-cardiovascular disease evidence.
The guidelines released Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration are voluntary, so food companies won’t be required to comply, and it could be a year or more before they are final. But the idea is to persuade companies and restaurants — many of which have already lowered sodium levels in their products — to take a more consistent approach.
Ah, I see: the guidelines are voluntary. Based on government history, here’s how that will work:
“Hey, food companies, we’d like you volunteer to reduce the sodium in food.”
“No thanks. People don’t like the food as much when we lower the sodium.”
“You don’t seem to understand. We’re asking you to do this voluntarily.”
“Got it. Voluntary guidelines. So we choose not to follow them.”
“Well, then, we’ll have to force you to follow them.”
“But you said the guidelines were voluntary.”
“Yes, but you didn’t volunteer, so now we’re imposing them.”
Sodium content already is included on existing food labels, but the government has not set specific sodium recommendations. The guidelines suggest limits for about 150 categories of foods, from cereals to pizzas and sandwiches. There are two-year and 10-year goals.
And a five-year plan issued by the Kremlin.
Health officials from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said overwhelming scientific evidence shows that blood pressure increases when sodium intake increases, increasing the chances of heart disease and stroke.
Overwhelming evidence, eh? That would mean 1) the science shows that high sodium intake leads to heart attacks and strokes, and 2) the science also shows that most Americans have a high sodium intake that puts them at risk. And let’s add a third point: before issuing a “voluntary” guideline for lowering the sodium in food, we’d want to be sure that people don’t respond to low-sodium foods by reaching for the salt shaker – which is what I do.
So how much sodium are we consuming, anyway?
Americans eat about 1½ teaspoons of salt daily, or 3,400 milligrams. That amount hasn’t gone down over the years, and it’s about a third more than the government recommends for good health. Most of that sodium is hidden inside common processed foods and restaurant meals, making it harder for consumers to control how much they eat.
I just explained that I have no trouble controlling how much sodium I eat. Give me low-sodium food, I reach for the salt shaker. That’s because 1) I like salt on my food, and 2) I’ve actually looked at the science – something regulators at the FDA apparently haven’t. Here’s a quote from a 2011 article in Scientific American:
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.
And here are some quotes from a recent article about a new meta-analysis:
A controversial new study contends that a low-salt diet could be dangerous for your heart health.
Notice how it’s only “controversial” if a study concludes that government advice is wrong?
Restricting dietary salt to below 3,000 milligrams a day appears to increase the risk for heart disease similar to that of high blood pressure patients who eat too much salt, said lead researcher Andrew Mente.
He said his study results showed that a low-salt diet increases the risk of heart attack or stroke 26 percent for people without high blood pressure and 34 percent for people with high blood pressure.
For those with high blood pressure, too much dietary salt increases their risk 23 percent, the study said.
On the other hand, a diet with excess salt doesn’t increase the risk at all if blood pressure is normal, the study reported.
“Most of the population eats what they’re supposed to eat, based on the data,” Mente said. “They fall in the middle and that’s actually the sweet spot — the safest range of intake.”
Mente’s study is observational, and you know what I think of observational studies are far as demonstrating cause and effect. But keep in mind that if A causes B, A and B will be correlated. So if A isn’t correlated with B, A doesn’t cause B. Mente found that a normal sodium intake – the 3400 milligrams the government says is too much – isn’t associated with heart attacks of strokes. But a lower sodium intake is. So naturally, the FDA wants us to cut back. And they’re (ahem) “asking” food companies to volunteer to help.
Back to the Tribune article:
Some companies have worried that though the limits will be voluntary, the FDA is at heart a regulatory agency, and the guidelines are more warning than suggestion.
Gee, do you think?