Public health experts urged regulators Thursday to consider instituting tighter restrictions on salt content in processed and prepared foods, claiming that limiting sodium could save more than 150,000 lives annually.
The call for salt limits and beefed-up warning labels on packaging came during a U.S. Food and Drug Administration public hearing. And the public advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was at the forefront of the charge.
"Salt is probably the single most harmful thing in our food," said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, "contributing to high blood pressure, which causes heart attacks and strokes." CSPI also called on the FDA to revoke salt's "generally recognized as safe" status and to instead regard it as a food additive.
The hearing came at a time when medical experts are becoming increasingly concerned over the amount of salt "hidden" in many foods on grocery store shelves, including products not normally associated with salt.
For example, said Dr. Randall Zusman, associate professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, a bowl of one popular cereal brand may pack more of a sodium punch than many consumers realize.
"One cup of Cheerios -- frequently advertised as heart healthy -- has 300 milligrams of salt," he explained.
"No one eats only one cup, so two to three cups each morning would be nearly 50 percent of your daily allotment. Yet, the FDA allows Cheerios to be advertised as a healthy alternative."
But while most agree that the excess salt in the diets of many Americans poses significant health risks, experts in the medical community remain divided over what should actually be done to address the problem.
Some agree with advocacy groups and believe that the FDA should require stricter labeling for manufactured foods. Such labeling could take the form of warnings placed prominently on the packaging of high-sodium foods.
But others think the focus on salt regulation is misdirected and say that the FDA should address more harmful elements of the American diet and lifestyle, such as obesity.
The American Dietetic Association, for one, has spoken out in favor of stricter product labeling to tackle the problem.
"Allowing manufacturers to include the amount of sodium found in a food on the front of the package along with claims that are currently allowed such as 'reduced,' 'lite' or 'low' sodium will help people better understand how the claim relates to the actual amount of sodium found in the food," said ADA spokeswoman Lona Sandon.
But the American Medical Association wants a stronger approach, urging the FDA to take direct action by cutting in half the amount of salt allowed in processed foods and food served in restaurants.
Doing so, it said, could save 150,000 lives in the United States every year.
"The need for immediate action is clear," said Dr. Stephan Havas, AMA vice president for science, quality and public health, in a press release issued Thursday.
"The deaths attributed to excess salt consumption represent a huge toll -- the equivalent of a jumbo jet with more than 400 passengers crashing every day of the year, year after year."
Martin Binks, assistant professor of medical psychology at the Duke University Medical Center, agreed.