Salt Wars: The Seasoning of Our Discontent

Salt Wars: The Seasoning of Our Discontent

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Now they tell us. The Centers for Disease Control released a study today claiming that 9 out of 10 Americans eat too much salt, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.

According to the study, 40 percent of the average American’s salt intake comes from processed foods like bread, lunch meat, pizza, poultry, soups, cheeseburgers, cheese, pasta dishes, meat loaf, and snack foods such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn.  Hmm. Sounds like last Sunday’s Super Bowl party.

Before you start complaining about how the nanny state is ruining the party, listen to Frieden’s estimate of the public health impact of consuming too much salt. “Reducing the sodium content of the 10 leading sodium sources by 25 percent would lower total dietary sodium by more than 10 percent and could play a role in preventing up to an estimated 28,000 deaths per year,” CDC director Thomas Frieden said in a press release.

It comes as no surprise that Frieden is continuing his war on salt now that he’s at CDC. While health commissioner in New York City, he initiated the campaign to encourage restaurants in the nation’s largest city to cut their salt usage by 25 percent. It now appears he is getting similar results from national food chains.

“We’re encouraged that some food manufacturers are already taking steps to reduce sodium,” Frieden said. “Kraft Foods has committed to an average 10 percent reduction of sodium in their products over a two year period, and dozens of companies have joined a national initiative to reduce sodium.  The leading supplier of cheese for pizza, Leprino Foods, is actively working on providing customers and consumers with healthier options.  We are confident that more manufacturers will do the same.” 

Frieden’s escalation in the salt wars is likely to rekindle the ongoing scientific debate over salt’s role in causing heart disease, and the conflicts of interests of researchers in the field. Scientists with financial ties to food processors and salt producers downplay the risks. They in turn point fingers at the government-funded scientists, whom they say both conduct the epidemiological studies tying increased salt consumption to heart disease and then turn around and write the government dietary guidelines on salt consumption.

I must admit my own conflict of interest in reporting this story. From 2003 to 2009, I worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that pushes for lower salt content in foods. Part of my job was exposing conflicts of interest of scientists who dissed the salt-heart disease connection.

The CDC under Frieden clearly has little interest in letting a little scientific controversy stop it from pursuing its stepped up campaign to build public awareness about salt. A cost-effectiveness study published last September by CDC scientists in the Journal of Hypertension estimated the U.S. could save $18 billion a year in health care costs if it lowered average per capita salt consumption by a third.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.