Much Ado About Salt

Salt isn't usually a big source of controversy, but suggestions that the government modify the nation's palate by restricting the saltiness of foods is creating a bit of a stir. In today's Washington Post, media correspondent Howard Kurtz wondered whether U.S. President Barack Obama really has time to "declare war on salt." Kurtz continued, "Do we want Uncle Sam in charge of our diets?"

The recommendation comes from an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, released on Tuesday. Faced with years of trying and failing to persuade Americans to eat less salt in an effort to lower blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes, a task force was asked to come up with new strategies. Its proposal: Require that food manufacturers gradually restrict how much salt they include in their foods. If done slowly enough, over a number of years, the 14 specialists in public health and other fields concluded, even those fans of potato chips shouldn't notice the change.

The recommendation—and rumors that the U.S. Food and Drud Administration (FDA) is planning to implement is—have raised some questions about what the government actually plans to do.

Although FDA quickly moved to deny that it had made any decisions, the agency said it would "thoroughly review" IOM's recommendations. Although it's generally agreed that Americans would benefit from consuming less salt, some question whether the science really supports government intervention. "The business of tampering with diet around a single item seems to me a chancy business," says Michael Alderman, a hypertension specialist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, who has long questioned whether the recommended daily allowance of salt—2300 milligrams—is based on sound science. Last year, the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed the scientific literature and agreed that "further evaluations" were needed to track the effects of dietary salt on health. Alderman, who has advised the Salt Institute, an industry group, but says he takes no money from it, also points out that there can be "unintended consequences" when industry is asked to modify food products. During a backlash against saturated fat in food, for example, many food makers turned to trans fat as a substitute—which turned out to be a much bigger threat to health.