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NYC’s proposed sodium cuts come with a tiny grain of salt

January 12, 2010 | 10:48 am

Salt New York City’s health department is devoting what energy it hasn’t spent on counting calories and discouraging sugary drinks to cutting consumers’ salt intake down to size.

The plan is to get restaurants and packaged food makers to reduce the amount of sodium (a major contributor to high blood pressure, and thus heart attacks and stroke) in packaged and restaurant food by 25% over five years. The city has released its proposed sodium targets for both restaurants and packaged foods. It has persuaded such varied bodies as the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the World Hypertension League to voice their support. And it’s requesting industry comment on the tentative salt cuts.

Cutting sodium intake is a valuable goal, but I’m a little skeptical as to how a voluntary program will make much difference -- especially one where each food item isn’t individually held to standard. The cuts are measured across a category, like “hamburgers” under restaurant food targets, or “sauces, dips, gravies and condiments” under packaged food).

But Dr. Sonia Angell, who heads the department's Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Control Program, said the flexibility of this method makes the plan more palatable to the industry. Angell also added that a similar voluntary program in the United Kingdom has helped reduce Britons’ sodium intake (by 9%, says the UK) over the last few years.

For 70% of the U.S. population -- particularly African Americans, people with hypertension, and the 40-plus crowd -- 1500 mg is the daily ceiling.

But Americans are on average consuming upward of 3400 mg to 3500 mg a day, said Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the department’s cardiovascular disease prevention and control program.

Even though nearly 80% of our daily salt comes from packaged and restaurant foods, Angell said, much of that added sodium is unnecessary and doesn’t add much to food flavor. “You really don’t have a choice in the amount of sodium you eat,” she said in an interview. “You can’t take the salt out of the takeout burger you bought at a restaurant.”

People can add as much salt as they like once they bring their burgers home -- and that’ll probably be healthier on balance, since Americans take just 11% of their sodium through a shaker.

While we wait to see if the Big Apple’s experiment bears fruit, it might be worth monitoring your own sodium intake, whether you’re eating out or grabbing a TV dinner from the supermarket.

Consider this: McDonald’s double cheeseburger has 1150 mg of sodium. Throw in some French fries (size small: 160 mg) and 70% of the U.S. has already hit its recommended limit. One serving of mac and cheese made from Kraft’s boxed pasta has 580 mg of sodium. And who eats just one serving, anyway?

Here’s a link to the FDA guide to reading a nutrition label. But beware: If you’re like most Americans, who need to keep sodium down, you’ll need to mentally adjust that “percent of daily value” (%DV). For example, the sample panel says 470 mg is 20% of your daily value of sodium. Under the 1500 mg ceiling, it’s actually 31%.

Keep that in mind when you’re judging for yourself.

-- Amina Khan

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