SALT is necessary for human survival. But Americans consume much more than their bodies need, and both the nonprofit Institute of Medicine and the federal government would like restaurants and the food industry to put less sodium in their products. They differ, however, on how to accomplish that.
The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of salt a day - about 1 1/2 teaspoons. That's about 50 percent more than the daily maximum of 2,300 mg set by the federal government and more than double the 1,500 mg recommended by the institute for people under 50. People over 50, the institute says, should ingest even less sodium.
Most of the salt we consume isn't added by at-home cooks or poured from salt shakers on dining room tables. Instead, the culprits are processed foods and restaurant meals.
That large dill pickle you have with the burger you grilled has more than 1,100 mg of sodium. A slice of cheese on top adds 290 mg; ketchup another 100. Add 150 mg for the bun, 150 or more for potato chips (who can eat just one?), 300 for potato salad, 30 for a diet soda, and you've had nearly your entire daily allotment of sodium in one sitting.
Restaurants can be even worse. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Red Lobster's "Admiral's Feast" of fried shrimp, scallops, clam strips, and flounder along with lobster-topped mashed potatoes, a cheddar cheese biscuit, and more contains some 7,100 mg of sodium. For a person over 50, that's about a week's worth of sodium in a single meal.
One in three Americans has high blood pressure, which often leads to heart attack and stroke. High blood pressure is linked directly to a high-salt diet. U.S. health experts say cutting salt consumption in half could save 100,000 lives each year.
People could help themselves by substituting fresh foods for high-salt processed foods and snacks. Most, however, find it hard to stay away from the Cheez-Its, sauerkraut, and tomato sauce.
The Institute of Medicine report recommended that the Food and Drug Administration force manufacturers and restaurants to reduce sodium in the foods they produce. The FDA prefers to work with the food industry, which says it's eager to reduce sodium gradually in prepared foods.
But the FDA and the food industry have known for decades that Americans are saltaholics. Efforts to get manufacturers and restaurants to reduce salt voluntarily have failed utterly. In fact, the problem's gotten worse, rubbing salt into America's wounded health. That's because salt, in addition to being a preservative, is a flavor enhancer that sells food. So there's no assurance the food industry's current willingness to cooperate is genuine.
The FDA should put the food industry on a short leash, making it clear that if restaurants and manufacturers don't act quickly to establish goals and procedures for reducing salt in food, the government will do it for them.