Salt goes into everything, right from soups and breakfast cereal, bread to cheese, fast-food restaurant meals and nowadays even fresh cuts of meat. The American food supply abounds with salt and according to government data, Americans eat far too much of it.
Now the American Medical Association, has been demanding that the government and the food industry reduces its almost persistently high level of salt in many processed foods.
The medical association has recommended that the Food and Drug Administration should limit the amount of salt that food companies are allowed to add to products.
The Association has said that the F.D.A. should regulate salt as a food additive.
Should this recommendation be adopted, packaged-food companies would then be forced to adhere to limits on allowable sodium levels for the various categories of food, as well as hasten the search for substitute to salt as a preservative and flavor enhancer.
This initiative has cast salt into forefront of public health concerns raising questions as to how attentive the F.D.A. has been to the problem of excess sodium consumption.
The F.D.A. has responded to these demands, assuring that it will solicit comments for a hearing or workshop on the health concerns about salt. The food industry, on their part have adamantly opposed any regulation of salt and is lobbying the government to prevent any attempts to force companies to limit the salt content in food.
Last month, the head of the Salt Institute, Richard L. Hanneman, met with Dr. John O. Agwunobi, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, to lobby against salt regulation by the F.D.A. The Salt Institute represents companies like Morton International, based in Chicago, and United Salt, based in Houston. The total value of the United States salt market is $340 million.
According to Mr. Hanneman science did not support reductions of salt across the board. Along with a few other scientists he has questioned whether lowering salt consumption would benefit large numbers of people.
Mr. Hanneman has instead pushed for the health agency to finance a comprehensive study on the overall health effects of reducing salt.
Dr. Michael H. Alderman, professor of epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx said, "There are a variety of effects that can happen with lowering sodium, some of them negative, so I don't think we should be just considering the one effect of lowering blood pressure.''
Other health experts from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine and the government's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute had long ago joined hands in agreement over the negative effects of excessive sodium consumption.
In 2004, researchers at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute had published a study in The American Journal of Public Health which concluded that 150,000 lives could be saved annually if sodium levels in packaged and restaurant foods were cut in half.
Food companies state that they are already working voluntarily to lower the amount of sodium in their products.
Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy at the Food Products Association, a lobbying group representing packaged food manufacturers said,"The industry has paid great attention to overall sodium level. It has responded over decades by creating reduced-, low- or no-sodium products, as well as making changes that the consumer never sees."
In spite of all these efforts, American sodium consumption has not declined in recent years. According to the government's dietary guidelines the average young adult should eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day and that the threshold should be 1,500 milligrams for certain people — those with high blood pressure, African-Americans (who are at higher risk for hypertension) and anyone middle-aged or older. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that on an average, Americans consume more than 3,300 milligrams of sodium a day, compared with 3,100 milligrams in 1994.