The New York Times has an interesting article titled The War Over Salt that reveals the growing battle to try and get the FDA to regulate the amount of salt that the food industry is allowed to use in its products. I find this particularly interesting because, unlike other people who have a sweet tooth, I have a salt tooth. I love salty foods and it goes without saying that I eat more than I really should on a regular basis. I’m well aware that this is not conducive to my health, but that hasn’t stopped me from loving it.
The article talks about how the American Medical Association is putting pressure on the FDA to strip salt of its designation as a “generally safe” food additive and start regulating it. Needless to say the food industry in general, and salt producers in particular, aren’t really happy about this and are lobbying the FDA to hold off on regulating salt in lieu of running some more studies on the effects of lowered sodium consumption:
“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,’’ said Dr. Michael H. Alderman, professor of epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Dr. Alderman says he is a consultant to the Salt Institute but that he is not paid for his work.
Most other health experts, however, long ago accepted that excessive sodium consumption leads to various health problems. Along with the American Medical Association, groups like the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine and the government’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute say it has been known for at least two decades that salt-induced high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a significant contributor to heart disease and stroke, the No. 1 and No. 3 causes of death in the United States. (Cancer ranks second.)
In 2004, researchers at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute published a study in The American Journal of Public Health concluding that 150,000 lives could be saved annually if sodium levels in packaged and restaurant foods were cut in half.
Now by this point in the article I was left with the impression that the food industry was just being a bunch of money grubbing scoundrels doing anything they could to keep their profits up much like the tobacco industry did for such a long time, but then it occurred to me that there is a distinct difference between salt, which is actually important to the body, and tobacco, which absolutely is not. While I’m sure the food industry wants to protect their bottom line if they can that hasn’t stopped them from trying to come up with low sodium products for consumers as a response to the health concerns. The trouble is that there’s not really a good salt substitute available and a lot of low sodium foods just don’t sell:
Mr. Dowdie says that Campbell’s Soup has been searching for decades for the aspartame or sucralose of salt — an ingredient that is not the real thing, but tastes very much like it.
The company has devised other, less perfect solutions. One is a concoction of naturally lower-sodium sea salt and various flavorings that allow for 25 percent salt-reduced versions of several of the company’s popular condensed soups.
ConAgra Foods says that, within the last year, it has quietly cut sodium by 18 percent in its Kid Cuisine frozen meals, by 14 percent in its Chef Boyardee products and by 19 percent in its Banquet brand of frozen dinners.
Those reductions might be even greater were it not for a long history of consumer rejection of lower-sodium products. In 2003, ConAgra says, it abandoned a version of its Healthy Choice Chicken Noodle soup that had 360 milligrams of sodium per serving because sales were dismal. Similarly, in 2001 General Mills introduced three varieties of Hamburger Helper that had 25 percent less sodium, only to withdraw the products from shelves less than a year later.
As I’m reading the article I’m slowly finding that I’m being pulled in two different directions about the issue. On the one hand it’s true that a lot of people, myself included, consume way more salt than we really should so reducing our intake is something that should be encouraged. On the other hand it’s something I feel should be encouraged and not enforced through regulation as the AMA and other health organizations would like it to be. Once again my libertarian side is shining through.
The simple truth is that I already know that too much salt is bad for me and most other people know this as well. If I’m really that concerned about it then I should be responsible enough to take matters into my own hands and reduce my salt consumption. At the same time the food industry should be encouraged to continue seeking salt alternatives as well as to try offering low sodium products, but it’s not their fault if most people prefer to keep consuming the higher sodium foods.
Then I had yet another thought inspired in part by the opening of the article:
FRANK HALL knows he probably should not eat Hungry-Man dinners. The frozen meals have as much as 2,230 milligrams of sodium per serving — far more than the government’s recommended daily allowance for older people — and Mr. Hall’s doctors have advised him to strictly limit salt consumption to help keep his blood pressure down.
OK, no problem. Sounds reasonable. Then…
But once a week, when grocery shopping with his granddaughter, Mr. Hall, who is 80 and has heart disease, tosses one or two of the big blue packages in his cart anyway.
The dude is eighty years old! Eighty! All I could think to myself was: Let the poor bastard enjoy his salt while he can. Yeah it might kill him, but he’s FREAKIN’ EIGHTY YEARS OLD! I don’t expect to see eighty myself, but if I do you can bet I won’t be too worried about my salt intake.
At the end I once again found myself pondering a familiar line of thought that I often have after reading such news articles. Namely that there’s this simple fact that we’re all going to die some day no matter what we do and part of what makes life living is how much you enjoy it. Some of what we enjoy can be harmful to us and lead to a shorter life. How much of what we enjoy in life should we sacrifice in order to live longer?
If you ask most folks if they want to live as long as possible they’ll say yes, but if you ask if they’d want to live as long as possible if the last few years of their life were miserable then a lot of folks would change their mind. Sure, I’d love to reach eighty or even a hundred years—that is… so long as I don’t spend those days stuck in a bed drooling on myself for entertainment.
Then there’s the realization that even if I took perfect care of myself there’s nothing that says I won’t be hit by a bus tomorrow. My best friend Bill Owen used to put a lot of thought into what he ate, he wouldn’t touch shellfish for example, and was easily the most health conscious out of our circle of friends. That didn’t make much difference when (as many of you regulars already know) he was killed by a speeding police car at the age of 35.
Consider also the recently deceased Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. He was 44 and that’s still pretty young to die, but he died doing what he loved to do and I’m willing to bet that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Had he played it safe he probably would’ve lived a lot longer, but would he have gotten as much enjoyment out of life if he had?
So I find myself trying to decide where to draw that line in the sand between being happy and living a long life. Cut back on salt and I might not end up with high blood pressure and dieing of a heart attack, but I also won’t enjoy food as much and I could just end up dieing early from some other cause anyway. Then consider that too much salt consumption is just one potential risk. When you stop to think about all the different ways you could die between now and some random future date it makes that risk assessment that much more maddening.
All of that thinking makes it very easy to say to myself, “Self, I’d rather die young and happy than old and miserable.” Which sounds great until I realize that, in many ways, it’s just a rationalization for behavior I know is detrimental to my health. I’m not lying when I say that I’d rather die young if I’m going to be miserable at the end, but at the same time I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to live a long time. I recognize that my salt consumption could be a big problem later, but at the same time I also realize it may never be a factor in how I actually die. I could end up suffering from any of a number of self-inflicted health problems when I’m in my elder years, but I could also end up like the guy who lived to be 112 despite his junk food diet, though I doubt I’d be that lucky. Rumor has it that guy had some good genes in his system.
I don’t really have a point with all of this, it’s just another example of the convoluted thought processes I sometimes get caught up in. Personally I try to be as healthy as I can tolerate being without making my life miserable in the process. It’s arguable how good a job I’m doing in walking that fine line, but it’s the approach I’ve been trying to take. What about you guys? Where do you draw the line?