An Institute of Medicine report that urges the government to set limits on the amount of salt in processed foods could spur a new wave of food regulation -- one that could save hundreds of thousands of American lives from heart attack and stroke, doctors say.
The new report calls on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of salt added to foods and gradually decrease sodium content as American palettes adjust to the change.
The authors of the report said such industry-wide regulation -- which they suggest could take place gradually, to allow consumer tastes to adjust -- will be necessary to cut salt consumption among the general public, as education campaigns have not worked.
"There have now been three of four analyses done differently about this, but have all reached the same conclusion -- if you reduce sodium, you'll be healthier," said Dr. Lawrence Appel, a professor at Johns Hopkins and a member of the IOM committee that drafted the report. "This is the first report that provides a roadmap on how to actually accomplish the reduction."
Physicians applauded the report.
"I think the impact could be considerable," said Dr. Howard Weintraub, clinical director of the New York University Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at the NYU Langone Medical Center. "When you think about it, the major cause of death in this country is cardiovascular disease... Decreasing the number of cardiovascular events in this way is a move that costs the government not a penny, and it will not make the American public feel as if they are inhibited or being subjected to a culinary concentration camp."
"We have known for years from scientific studies about the conditions that are brought about by excess sodium consumption, like heart attack and stroke, so there is no controversy there," said Dr. Sharonne Hayes, director of the Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "There is no controversy about how reducing sodium levels in the diet can also reduce these events."
Hayes said that even a 10 percent reduction in sodium intake across the U.S. population could save a million people from heart attack and stroke each year, and it could rack up billions in cost savings from preventable illnesses.
Likewise, lawmakers who championed the effort said the recommendation is a good one.
"Removing the barriers to healthy living leads to longer, healthier lives and lower health care costs down the road," said Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, during a press conference held by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It is difficult for Americans to control the amount of sodium they consume when dangerously high amounts are being added to processed foods. Nearly 80 percent of our daily sodium intake isn't added at the table or during cooking -- it's added in processing plants before it ever gets to us.
"When sodium is so clearly linked to heart disease and strokes, it's time to give Americans more information and better control over their daily intake.
Specifically, the IOM wants the FDA gradually to reduce the level of salt consumption generally recognized as safe. Currently, the agency recommends no more than 2,300 mg per day, which amounts to about a teaspoon.
Most Americans, however, get 50 percent more than that, or about 3,400 mg per day.