Obstacles to Lowering Sodium Intake in Diets

Food industry and health officials are in an ongoing political battle over the regulation of salts in processed foods. In the past century, sodium has become much more prevalent in the human diet [1]. According to recent studies, processed foods, rather than salt additives, have been the major sources of high sodium levels in the human diet [1]. High levels of sodium intake cause increased blood pressure [2]. Increased blood pressure results in increased risk for cardiovascular and renal dysfunction [3]. If reduced levels in processed foods can ameliorate significant public health issues such as the high incidence of cardiovascular and renal disease, it seems logical to set an appropriate limit for sodium contents in processed foods. Yet, government officials have not set a legal sodium limit in processed foods.

Food industry officials lead the countermovement against the reduction of sodium in processed foods. Sodium plays a large role in the preservative, functional, qualitative, and gustatory aspects of food. Food industry officials have prevented the reduction of sodium in processed foods in favor of tasty, unhealthy foods with longer shelf lives and increased economic profit [4]. Functionally, sodium regulates the aging of cheese and suppresses the off flavors of foods [5]. Additionally, sodium contributes to food safety by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms in various foods. High sodium content in a food product lowers its water activity, which creates an inhospitable environment for microorganisms in food fluids. Food industry officials have fought to maintain sodium levels in foods, so that the food industry does not suffer from new legislation meant to improve public health. It is unacceptable for the economic power of the food industry to interfere with changes that will produce significant improvements in public health.

Figure 1: Saltless by McCormick

Figure 1: Saltless by McCormick

Although changes in the functionality of salts may result in decreased functionality, many salt substitutes on the market provide a middle ground that will maintain some functional characteristics of salt while lowering population sodium intake. Many of the sodium “prototypes” thus far have hit local supermarkets around the country, but do not completely mimic the functional and gustatory properties of ordinary table salt, i.e. Sodium Chloride. Potassium Chloride, for instance, is slightly bitter, although it does mimic other functional and gustatory properties of Sodium Chloride. To minimize the bitter taste of Potassium Chloride in salt substitutes, food manufacturers have formulated salt mixtures with some percentage of both Sodium Chloride and Potassium Chloride [6,7](Figure 1). These mixtures have had modest success, but can help people regulate their Sodium Chloride intake.
To reach a consensus between the actions of both parties, Congress recommends a gradual reduction in the levels of sodium in processed foods [1]. This gradual reduction will allow the population to adapt to the low sodium taste of products. Nevertheless, this is merely a recommendation and Food Industry officials have not made significant changes in the sodium levels in their products [1]. Although reduction in sodium would have significant effects on population health, the economic power of the food industry has prevented meaningful changes that would move the health of our country in a better direction. Salt substitutes provide a short-term compromise that may improve public health conditions; individuals must take the initiative to lower their salt intake before Congress takes necessary actions to limit the salt contents in processed foods.

References

  1.  Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the U.S. 2010 Institute of Medicine. The National Academies Press (Washington D.C.)
  2. Hollenberg NK. The influence of dietary sodium on blood pressure. J Am Coll Nutr. 25 (2006):S240–S246.
  3. Hooper L, Bartlett C, Davey SG. “Advice to reduce dietary salt for prevention of cardiovascular disease.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (2004)
  4. Lori Roman, letter to Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius. September 30, 2011.
  5. Tim Hutton. “Sodium Technological functions of salt in the manufacturing of food and drink products”, British Food Journal 104 (2002), Vol. 104: 126 – 152.
  6. Arlene M. Wolzak and A.M. Pearson. “Salt – its use in animal products – a human health dilemma.” J Anim Sci. 54 (1982): 1263–1278.Image Credit Saltless by McCormick: http://www.shopwell.com/mccormick-saltless-salt-substitute/seasonings/p/5210000051

Image Credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Fredmeyer_edit_1.jpg

Jared M. Feldman is a sophomore at Cornell University majoring in Food Science. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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