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Salt Intake Brings New Levels of Alarm

A pinch on your baked potato, a dash to season your eggs, a quick shake to make your broccoli more palatable. Salt finds its way - in these and much more insidious ways - into your diet every day.

And now it has found its way into the sights of consumer and health advocates who say the government is not doing enough to protect Americans from the harmful effects of too much salt.

For an adult, the daily recommended salt intake is about 1 teaspoon.

The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to remove salt - also known as sodium chloride - from its list of foods categorized as "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS.

Salt "is the single most harmful element in the food supply, even worse than saturated fat and trans fat, or food additives and pesticides," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Last year, the center petitioned the FDA to remove salt from the GRAS list. According to a report from the center, this "forgotten killer" is a major cause of high blood pressure in Americans; limiting consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.

How much is too much?

The body needs a certain amount of salt, experts say, to help maintain the right balance of fluids in the body, among other functions.

For healthy adults, the American Heart Association recommends a daily salt intake of less than 2,300 milligrams (1 teaspoon).

Registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo estimates that most Americans consume about 3,500 to 4,000 milligrams of sodium a day.

Government guidelines recommend that certain groups in which there is a greater prevalence of high blood pressure, including black, middle-aged and older people, limit their daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams.

But most of the concerns about salt intake doesn't surround the shaker on your kitchen table. Government data indicate that 77% of a person's daily sodium consumption comes from food processing. If salt were taken off the GRAS list, manufacturers could be subject to limitations on the quantity used in the production of food.

Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, says the agency is responding to heightened concerns from consumers and the medical community about salt's possible effect on hypertension. There was a hearing on salt regulation in November, and when a public-comment period closes on March 28, the FDA will consider its options.

"Labeling has been our primary mechanism up to this point for conveying helpful information to consumers so they (can) make informed choices on foods pertaining to salt intake," Tarantino says.

Says Jacobson, who is skeptical that the FDA will do much this year: "It's not on the fast track, but at least it's on their radar screen."

Not everyone agrees that removing salt from the GRAS list is an effective way to combat serious medical conditions.

Limiting salt in food production would have "an unbelievable impact" on the industry, says Morton Satin, director of technical and regulatory Affairs at The Salt Institute, an industry group.

"Every category of food we have contains salt," Satin says. When a salt replacement is used, it affects other flavors in the food, which then require modifications.

"You end up with several complex chemicals just to make up for the salt," Satin says.

Other Bad Players

Considering the American diet as a whole will have a greater effect on lowering high blood pressure than limiting salt in food production, Satin says.

Dietetic Association spokesman Milton Stokes agrees: "Just cutting the salt is not going to do it." He cites inactivity, insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables, and excessive consumption of trans fats and alcohol as contributing problems. "There are too many risk factors that need to be modified."

Stokes would like to see manufacturers and restaurants reduce the salt they use in food production but believes consumers can "be in the driver's seat on this one" by buying lower-sodium products.

Consumers should be educated and encouraged to read food labels, Stokes says. Often, foods that people think of as low in salt have comparable or higher levels than "salty" foods. Cereals, for example, often have a higher sodium content than potato chips, he says.

"Leaving the salt shaker in the closet is going to help, but it's not going to revolutionize your life," Stokes says.

Gazzaniga-Moloo says neither the FDA nor the food industry should be singled out for blame. The country's complicated manufacturing and regulatory systems, combined with the taste that consumers have acquired for high-salt foods, will make finding a solution "challenging," she says.
 Source: By Heather Terwilliger,

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