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“Restrict Sodium” Advice: A Boost to Big Food, Half the Puzzle for Consumers

spamLesssodiumThis past Monday, the nutrition and public health world had its equivalent of the Oscar nominations.  After what seemed like endless waiting, dietitians, public health  experts, and food policy watchdogs tuned in — at least on the web — to the live announcement of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines (published every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services).  The post-event tweeting, blogging, dissecting, and analyzing is far from over.

Like the Oscars, the Dietary Guidelines are a combination of well-deserved recognition (this year, my two standouts were “make half of your plate fruits and vegetables” and “drink water instead of sugary drinks”) and good old politics (as Marion Nestle points out, “eat less” recommendations are about nutrients rather than actual foods).

One of the “hot topics” of the new Dietary Guidelines?  Sodium.  More specifically, sodium reduction.  This comes in the heels of Walmart’s announcement to reduce sodium and added sugars in their product line (these excellent articles by public health lawyer Michele Simon and BNet food industry blogger Melanie Warner echo my thoughts on that matter).

But, yes, one could say sodium is the new trans fat (unlike trans fat, though, we require a certain amount of daily sodium — around 1,500 mg a day — to maintain cellular health).  And, by the way, kudos to my crystal ball for recognizing sodium as the next public health menace back in June of 2008.

So here we are.  The new Dietary Guidelines continue to urge sodium restriction (healthy adults under the age of 51 are still allotted 2,300 milligrams, but those over the age of 51, as well as those with hypertension diabetes or kidney disease, regardless of age, are recommended to cap their intake at 1500 mg), mainly as a precautionary measure against hypertension and heart disease.

This advice, however, comes bundled with two significant problems: it fails to provide an accurate nutritional picture and gives Big Food an unfair advantage.

Let’s start with that last point.   As my colleague Michele Simon points out,

“Telling people to cut back on salt in the current food environment is like telling fish not to die in a polluted stream.  Just like we have restrictions on pollutants in water and air, we need regulations that restrict salt in food.  But of course, the food industry would go ballistic over that idea. Big Food is happy to have Uncle Sam keep doling out meaningless advice.  And, we are likely to see more “low-salt” junk food soon, just as we saw “whole grain” Reese’s Puffs cereal in 2005. That worked so well.”

Bingo!  Sodium restriction will invariably lead to a slew of low-sodium (or, more likely, “lower-sodium”, indicating a product that contains less sodium than the original formula but still provide a hefty amount of the mineral) processed foods.

I can also tell you from working with clients over the past few years (not only within the scope of my private business but also in a variety of clinical settings) that the majority of individuals erroneously think cutting back on salt is simply a matter of eating fewer salted peanuts.

One of the many topics I am passionate about is the outrageous sodium content in foods that are deceiving to the taste buds, in the sense that they do not register as salty-tasting.  For example, a Panera Bread Company blueberry scone has 430 more milligrams of sodium than a large order of McDonald’s french fries.  An Au Bon Pain carrot-walnut muffin?  As much sodium as EIGHT chicken McNuggets.

“But, Andy,” you may be saying, “shouldn’t we at least golf-clap for the food industry if it is willing to listen to these guidelines and make a commitment to reducing sodium?”

That “commitment” sounds great on paper — especially on press releases so full of hope and promise it could bring a tear to your eye… until you realize it’s corporate spin at its finest.

No, I don’t think lower-sodium junk food deserves golf claps (or even celebratory finger snaps, for that matter).  “Restrict sodium” guidelines ultimately hand Big Food an “easy out” on a silver tray, all while failing to mention the other side of the coin…. the nutrients that should be encouraged — and what foods to find them in.

Magnesium and potassium are, from a nutritional standpoint, the “anti-sodium” tag-team, especially as far as hypertension and heart disease are concerned.  Alas, the food industry prefers to play dumb on this point because, unlike other nutrients, magnesium and potassium are not as easy to add to foods (either due to cost or undesirable taste alterations).

Where do you find magnesium and potassium?  Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.  And, look at that — those foods are also naturally low in sodium!  Too bad Mother Nature doesn’t have an $80 million advertising budget.

Do you begin to see why and how “low sodium” processed food misses the point.  Sure, you may be getting a 25 percent reduction of sodium in some packaged foods, but these products tend to offer minimal amounts of magnesium and potassium, so even with a sodium reduction they are not as healthful as less processed foods.

Increasing your intake of these minerals (especially potassium) is much more effective from a nutrition and health standpoint than simply reducing sodium.

Oh, also not happy with the sodium craze?  The Salt Institute!  Their website, which simultaneously tackles issues of winter road safety and nutrition (my, how versatile!) makes the case that salt intake is not the main driver in hypertension.  While they are not completely wrong, I tackled the issue and sprinkled it with a dash of grounded perspective in this post.

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2 Comments

  1. Tita Barbosa said on February 2nd, 2011

    Muy bueno! es increìble la cantidad de sodio escondido en cientos de articulos que la gente ni se imagina, pero como siempre atràs de todo siempre hay un gran negocio. Por eso lo mejor es ir cada vez màs a los alimentos estrictamente naturales, ej: frutas, verduras, nueces, y cocinarlas con nuestras propias manos, sabiendo muy bien que es lo que usamos.

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