War On Health: Fox Opposes FDA Sodium Standards That Could Save Lives

Apparently last week's rap on salt regulation wasn't enough: Fox took up its pro-salt torch again today, hosting the president of the Salt Institute to bash planned FDA standards on salt intake. Never mind that the FDA is targeting processed food, not families' salt shakers, or that studies have shown decreasing salt intake could save lives -- Fox News has a War on Health to keep up.

In today's “Regulation Nation” segment, co-host Steve Doocy interviewed Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, and health advocate MeMe Roth about the FDA's renewed push to decrease Americans' salt intake. It's not clear why this is “news,” since the FDA's announcement that it would gradually ramp up salt regulations was made in April 2010; perhaps it's related to the FDA's recent call for public comments on the plan. Or maybe it's because, as Howard Kurtz recently reported, Fox chairman Roger Ailes -- who dreamed up Fox's “Regulation Nation” series -- loves salt.

But Doocy didn't explain; instead, he fearmongered that the government will be “regulat[ing] what we eat” and allowed the president of the Salt Institute -- clearly not an objective source -- to repeatedly claim that the government is has “an agenda that goes beyond science” and is recommending an unhealthily low salt intake (emphasis added):

DOOCY: Your food could soon be getting a little blander. The feds are trying to figure out ways to shake the salt right out of your diet. And that begs the question -- is it the government's role to regulate what we eat, or should we decide that ourselves? For a fair and balanced debate right now, we're joined by Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute -- I think we know where she comes down on this -- and certified health counselor MeMe Roth. Good morning to both of you.


DOOCY: Lori, let's start with you. Why is the government cracking down on salt right now? Why are they trying to regulate what we eat?

ROMAN: Because they have an agenda that goes beyond science. They're not basing this on science. They're definitely basing it on an agenda.

DOOCY: What's the agenda?

ROMAN: The agenda seems to be to exert some control over industry in almost every realm that we see. And the biggest problem with salt is that we can actually prove that they're in violation of the law as it comes to the dietary guidelines on sodium. They're in violation because the preponderance of scientific evidence is not being followed, and the law says they must follow the preponderance of the scientific evidence.

DOOCY: And in fact, I understand that if you actually followed what the government wanted you to intake with salt, you would have a big deficiency and you could be more unhealthy.

ROMAN: Right. I mean, you have to have about over 3,400 milligrams of salt a day just to be healthy. And below 3,400 milligrams, bad things start to happen to your body.

Roth pointed out, correctly, that this is not true. She tried to push back on Roman's numbers.

From the show:

ROTH: Well, that's not quite true. The real issue is about transparency. And people want to know what is and isn't healthy. And if you sit down to a meal, you want to know it's safe. If something has three days' worth of salt in it, as a consumer, Steve, you want to know that.

DOOCY: Sure.

ROTH: You might get a warning if you -- so, Lori's talking about --

DOOCY: I would rather -- I think I'd rather hear from Grandma, I put too much salt in it, rather than hear from the government.

ROTH: Yes, if it's homemade, that's true. But when you sit down at a restaurant --

DOOCY: Right.

ROTH: -- it may have two or three days' worth of salt in one meal, and you don't know that. So you need to be told that, so you can make an informed decision on whether or not to eat that.

DOOCY: Right, and a lot of restaurants, they do have the content of calories and sodium and stuff like that right up on the wall, but now the government is saying, OK, you can only have a certain amount and no more than that.

ROTH: Well, they want people to know what is and isn't safe. So if you're healthy and young, a little less than a teaspoon a day is great. But for most people who are not Caucasian, or who are 51 or older or have diabetes, about half a teaspoon is much safer. So really, it's, you know -- and a lot of times it's not how much you're adding with this, again, it's what you're buying at the store, at a restaurant. You have no idea really how much salt is in there.

ROMAN: Unfortunately, that's not based on scientific evidence. Scientific evidence, especially in recent years, we know this -- that if you get below the normal, safe, natural range of sodium consumption, which most people crave naturally, then you're at a higher risk for cardiac arrest. You're at a higher risk for diabetes and --

ROTH: And right, Lori. Nobody wants anyone to get below a healthy amount. But you are at risk when you have too much. We know that it's related to high blood pressure and could lead to high blood pressure, of course, could lead to stroke. So no one is suggesting an unsafe low amount. What people want to know is what's safe --

DOOCY: No, I think they are.

ROMAN: Actually, the government is actually recommending between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams a day.

ROTH: Because most people --

ROMAN: Which is unheard of in the world.

DOOCY: That's too little, right?

ROMAN: No one in the world eats that little amount of salt. The average in the world is about 3,600 milligrams a day, so natural, normal range of consumption, the average in the entire world is about 3,600 milligrams a day.

In spite of Roman's and Doocy's attempts to claim otherwise, a daily salt intake of 3,600 milligrams is not “natural” and “normal.” A 2009 Time article noted that most Americans actually eat about 3,600-4,800 mg of sodium per day, which is 9 to 12 grams of salt. The article cited experts to state that decreasing that number would have drastic positive health effects for the U.S. (emphasis added):

Some salt is crucial for good health, of course -- to regulate blood pressure and assist with muscle and nerve function -- but too much (that is, at the levels we currently consume) can lead to hypertension, heart disease and stroke. If Americans halved their salt intake, as many as 150,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year, according to the American Medical Association. And new research presented March 11 by Bibbins-Domingo at the AHA's annual conference shows that even small reductions -- as little as 1 g of salt per day -- could have dramatic effects, saving 200,000 lives over the course of a decade.

In 2010, an article published on CNN.com noted that "[t]he number of heart attacks in the U.S. could decline by up to 13 percent if adults could just slash their daily salt intake by 3 grams, or about 1,200 milligrams of sodium," according to a study published at the time. Such positive effects have been documented: a 2009 paper from the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that “large reductions in cardiovascular disease have been observed in controlled intervention studies and in Finland after implementation of initiatives for sodium reduction.” Apart from a single outlier study -- which Fox hyped during its last salt defense -- whose methodology was criticized, almost every analysis from the past decade has found that increased salt intake is bad for health.

Doocy and Roman are correct about the government's recommended numbers -- the CDC currently recommends that most Americans should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, while older Americans, African-Americans, and those with high blood pressure should consume no more than 1,500 mg. In grams of salt, that's 5.75 grams and 3.75 grams, respectively.

How does that measure up against other countries' recommendations? A World Health Organization report from a 2006 forum, “Reducing Salt Intake in Populations,” stated that salt guidelines are 5 g/day in Portugal and Singapore, 6/g day in Canada and Australia, and 9/g per day in the Netherlands. So while the U.S. recommendations are on the low end of the scale, it's misleading to suggest they're wildly off base.

What's most misleading about this segment, however, is Doocy's repeated suggestion that the FDA's call to reduce national salt intake somehow means the government will be hunting down salt shakers door-to-door. Again, we don't know what Doocy's referring to, since he doesn't make it clear, but if he's referring to the FDA's initiative launched in 2010, the main purpose is to reduce sodium in processed foods; as a Washington Post article reported at the time, that's where 77 percent of Americans' salt intake comes from. The Post included this graphic:

Salt intake

So “Grandma” can't tell you that you “put too much salt” in your food, as Roth correctly pointed out during the Fox segment -- Grandma can't take the salt out of prepackaged soups, breads, and sauces.

The Post article further explained:

The Food and Drug Administration is planning an unprecedented effort to gradually reduce the salt consumed each day by Americans, saying that less sodium in everything from soup to nuts would prevent thousands of deaths from hypertension and heart disease. The initiative, to be launched this year, would eventually lead to the first legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.

The government intends to work with the food industry and health experts to reduce sodium gradually over a period of years to adjust the American palate to a less salty diet, according to FDA sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the initiative had not been formally announced.

Officials have not determined the salt limits. In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600 billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated so that consumers barely notice the modification.


“This is a 10-year program,” one source said. “This is not rolling off a log. We're talking about a comprehensive phase-down of a widely used ingredient. We're talking about embedded tastes in a whole generation of people.”

No one from the FDA will come knocking on your door and snatch the salt shaker from Grandma's hand. What's being proposed is an effort to decrease sodium in foods you already buy that have unhealthy amounts of salt -- an effort that scientists estimate could save thousands of lives. Yet somehow, Fox is opposing that effort.