Sodium Restricted (Updated)

James Joyner is expressing some concern over the proposal that the FDA restrict the amount of salt that processed foods may contain:

I don’t have any strong ideological objection to the government involving itself in this issue, given the very real health risks of too much sodium in the American diet. I favor labeling requirements and education on this topic.

I’m less sanguine, though, about restricting the sale of, say, high salt peanuts. If, say, Planters wants to put out a high-salt variety and consumers are willing to take the long-term health risks because, damn it, they really like salty peanuts, then I can’t see a rationale for government to stop that transaction.

And I’m not at all sure why the president and the FDA get to make such an important decision. This strikes me as intrusive enough that Congress should have to get involved directly. I don’t mind deferring to the FDA’s expertise — or its ability to work with industry — to set specific levels of sodium. But Congress should pass a law outlining the broader principle.

There are some foods, e.g. cheese or bacon, that can’t be made low in sodium without actually changing their character. Cheddaring, for example, is a process of salting. You can’t make cheddar cheese without salt. It’s a contradiction in terms. I suspect that the real impact of this will depend on how “processed food” is defined. Is cheddar cheese processed food? Obviously, the answer is “yes” but it may not be from a regulatory standpoint.

I’ve been on a pretty low sodium diet for the last 50 years, long before it became fashionable. My mom rarely used salt in her cooking and didn’t include much in the way of processed foods in our diet after about 1958 and I took up the practice as well. My blood pressure is okay for my age and part of the reason for that might be the diet I’ve eaten over the years. Since I make practically everything from scratch and restrict the amount of things high in salt like bacon or cheese in my diet, I really don’t worry much about it.

I think the real secret of reducing the amount of sodium in one’s diet is re-educating one’s palate. Unlike fat, there’s no inborn drive for lots of salt in the diet. Throughout our existence as a species human beings have preferentially sought out the highest fat food in their environments. The same has not been found for the highest salt-containing foods. Much salt craving is simply learned. If you’ve got it, reducing the salt in processed foods won’t help. I recall that my father-in-law used to put salt on his bacon.


Regular commenter PD Shaw makes a good point at the OTB post linked above:

Yes, it’s creepy because salt is a necessary staple, without which you’ll die. Some people will gain weight or suffer hormonal imbalances from drastic reductions in salt. If you’re doing significant cardiovascular exercise, you might need salt supplements.

As I suggested above, I suspect that the impact of this move will depend on what the meaning of “is” is.

26 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Dave, are you sure there is no inborn drive for salt in the diet. A human will die without salt, so I assume that we have at least some inborn protection against that.

  • As I suggested in the post I know of no archaeological evidence that human beings have preferentially sought out the highest salt-containing foods although that we have preferentially sought out the highest fat-containing foods is well established.

    The matter might be one of ways and means and of degree. Preservation has nearly always meant salting. Salt itself has been a vital trade substance for as long as we’ve been able to determine. It might be the case that the highest fat foods tend to contain sodium, too. I’m not completely sure of that.

    You need about 500 mg. of salt per day for good health. That’s not very difficult to achieve even without the use of salt per se, particularly if you’re a carnivore. A pat of (salted) butter pretty much does it. Or a small grating of parmesan cheese.

  • Rich Horton Link

    The major problem, philosophically, is that it is an infringement of personal autonomy, in a way labelling food is not. It is not the role of government, in a liberal society, to make its citizens live in a “preferred” manner. By what right does some segment of society get to impose upon another what they can consume? In liberal democratic theory, of any vintage, there is no such right. In liberal poltical theory we are only proscribed from doing things that infringe upon the freedom of others, and, in some varieties, we are required to provided the material basis to allow all members the chance to develop their natural capacities fully. There is nothing that allows for the state to decide HOW people should be allowed to develop or live.

    Now, there are political theories that do give the state the power to do so. Fascism, for example, posits an organic view of society which says individual, and by extension individual choice, should count for nothing and only the well being of the state matters. Since, in such a system, we exist not for ourselves but only for the state, well then it makes “sense” for the state to define the content and character of our daily existence.

    Also, in would-be communist societies where control of the state is in the hands of a “vanguard party” of elites/intellectuals, the content and character of daily existence is deemed to be too important to be left to individual freedom of choice. The masses do not possess the “proper consciousness” needed to make the “right” choices, so they will have to be told what to do.

    The entire movement of restricting the choices Americans can make “for their own good” is an example of a creeping tyranny that is inconsistent with liberty. This is why you have legislators in New York seriously proposing to ban the use of salt in restaurants on pain of fine and inprisonment. Its worse than nuts…far worse.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I admit to reasoning backwards. We need salt, therefore a distaste for salt would be weeded out. But you’re probably right that meat would satisfy most salt needs, particularly if the blood is also preserved and consumed.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The labratory for this is the British Raj, which imposed a high salt tax, killing a number of Indians. There is an article on this topic: “Salt Starvation in British India – Consequences of High Salt Taxation in the Bengal Presidency, 1765 to 1878.”

    The article does point to research supporting Dave’s point that salt levels can be modified by aclimization. But I found this bit interesting:

    “Very small amounts of sodium may be present in unprocessed foodstuffs. These have been quantified by McCance (McCance 1936b, 647) together with the comment: “You will notice how little some of them contain, and appreciate that additional salt may be an absolute necessity when I tell you that I would have to eat more than twice my own weight of potatoes every day to get my physiological intake of sodium”. Meat contains more salt, but on the basis of McCance’s figures a minimum of 8 ¼ lb would have to be eaten daily. Many Indians were, of course, vegetarian. Even those that were not would have gained little from what quantity of meat they did eat, unless they were eating wild game, since domestic herbivores require salt in their feed (Denton 1984, 54). Coastal dwellers may have received some of their requirement from fish, and it can be assumed that although manufacture of salt from seawater was illegal they took advantage of the salt water for cooking. “

  • PD Shaw Link

    I mean “acclimatisation.”

  • Drew Link

    This reminds me of a cartoon published during the meddling Carter years, with a spokesman at a podium saying “and now I’d like to introduce Health Secretary Joe Califano to tell you about his decision to give up sex and what it means for you.”

  • Change you can believe in….

  • steve Link

    We have been doing more smoking of fish and meats the last few years. I do not add lots of salt in my usual cooking. I was surprised at how much salt nearly all of the recipes for various rubs and marinades contained. I reduce them all.

    Marketers have clearly done a good job of acclimating us to salt and selling food with lots of salt. I have long been a bit of a salt agnostic and its relation to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, but the evidence is firming up a bit. What would be the free market approach to reducing salt intake in food, when people like it and the market has been very successful at using it to increase sales?


  • “What would be the free market approach to reducing salt intake in food, when people like it and the market has been very successful at using it to increase sales?”

    This seems to imply if the public remains “recalcitrant” to the desires of the state when they “ask nicely,” then the state can legitimately force people to adopt “approved” behaviors. I reject outright that it is in the purview of the state to decide what foods its citizenry may be allowed to purchase, be it “too salty,” “too sugary,” “too fat,” “not vegetarian enough”, etc.

    I swear…there is no one on the earth today more fascistic than your average dietician.

  • Drew Link

    “What would be the free market approach to reducing salt intake in food, when people like it and the market has been very successful at using it to increase sales?”

    In a free market one wouldn’t predispose that reducing salt intake was a goal. In a free society, people would be free to choose. The only issue would be access to information, personal choice, and willingness to bear the consequences.

    I’m all for information, but in reality, and as a general proposition, this is just mindless crap. People know they shouldn’t have excessive fat intake, too many carbs, too much salt, drink too much, speed in their cars, not exercise, bungie jump, try to beat trains at crossings, cocaine abuse ……the risks are all well publicized……………but people do it anyway.

    The real issue is willingness to bear the consequences. And where we are heading in society right now – due primarily to the Left – is that nobody suffers from their own bad decisions. Rather, everything is made a collective problem. That’s a prescription for disaster… we are approaching.

    You think printing calorie counts on McDonalds menus is going to make people say, “sheeeit, I never knew a Big Mac was this caloric, order me a salad baby!” Ludicrous. Mortons steaks are salty!!! No!! I never knew!! Damn!!!! Skip that fillet and order me some brussel sprouts right this second!! Ludicrous.

    As a society we have historically attempted to define the line where the liberty associated with one’s personal actions crosses the line to impinging upon the liberty of another: say, speeding, or reckless or drunken driving. That’s fine.

    But the predicate here is going to be that bad eating habits harm the collective good, now that the collective good is government run health care. (Go over to OTB and see the mindless post of anjin-san) Anyone with an IQ over 80 knew where this was going from day 1. So its open season.

    And this why people of my philosophical view want to retain health insurance in the private realm, where there is at least a chance of correlating personal behavior and premiums, and therefore the entire cost structure of the health care system.

    So good bye to popcorn, cheese, soda, meats, pizza, beer, wine, vodka,…………..unavailable. Government says no good for you.

    Wait, excuse me. What I just said is not true!! The people won’t stand for that. But, aha, SIN TAXES on those items!!!! After all, its “in the public good.” And that’s what is really going on here. Government revenue.

    WTFU people, its not like its rocket science.

  • Michael Reynolds Link

    The people who let us down are smokers. I thought they’d show more spine. But they folded. They handed the nags a big victory.

    Now they’re after foie gras. Granted only foodies care.

    It’s not the job of the government to control our lives and dictate our behavior. No, that’s the job of private industry with its drug tests, its exclusions from health insurance, its anti-fat and anti-smoking hiring practices. All of which partly balance off its endless proselytization for the culture of more pharmaceuticals, more sugar, more calories, and greater tolerance for bacteria and insect parts in food.

    If the government wants to do something useful they could stop subsidizing corn (sugar) and then they could see about improving inspections so that I don’t have to treat a piece of raw chicken with the sort of obsessive caution normally reserved for handling plutonium.

    Here’s my offer to the federal government: you make it safe for me to eat a medium rare burger, and I promise I’ll use less salt on it.

  • A spirited defense, indeed, Michael. They’ll pry your foie gras from your cold, dead, hands.

  • Michael Reynolds Link


    There are some issues that are simply too important to allow for compromise.

  • I picked up a carton of Shurfresh cottage cheese the other day when it was on sale. It has a noticeably salty taste.

    So when I saw James’ write-up on this item, I checked the label. One half-cup of the stuff has 520 mgs of sodium. That’s more sodium than a half-cup of Planter’s Dry Roasted Peanuts contains, which comes in at around 440 mgs. That’s by volume, now, not gram weight. I measured.

    Breakstone is the other brand available here in the sticks apart from Walmart’s Great Value (420). The same measure of that comes in at 390. I don’t regulate my salt intake, but I’ll try that next time I have a yen for cottage cheese to compare.

    My guess is that Shurfresh could knock off 100 mgs of sodium per serving without public complaint.

    But I’m libertarian enough to hate this sort of regulation, and I’d be truly pissed if I were a product developer for a food company. What a tangle that will be.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’ve never felt as much a libertarian as when I read the question about a free market approach to reducing salt intake in food. And nobody thinks I’m a libertarian.

  • Maxwell James Link

    I wouldn’t support a hard cap on sodium either. On the other hand, I wouldn’t oppose a pigouvian tax on high-salt packaged foods if that could be implemented successfully. The public health implications are real and they should be paid for appropriately.

  • Maxwell James Link

    I’ll also add that if a hard cap is implemented successfully (though I doubt it will), look for the incidence of iodide deficiency to go up.

  • steve Link

    Hmm, no takers for my question. I am not presupposing that something HAS to be done. Suppose that, arguendo, high salt intake is an acquired, mild addiction. If we know for sure that the health consequences are bad, people know it and are still willing to overconsume to the point of bad personal outcomes, it is difficult to see that behavior as rational. It strikes me that this is either very good marketing or an addiction/dependence along the lines of caffeine. If the costs of this addiction are very high, what would be a successful free market approach to encourage less consumption?

    Maybe what I am asking is incompatible with free market thinking. Maybe corporations should be able to put additives in food that increase their sales while hurting their customers, without suffering any negative consequences. Let me turn the question around. What happens then if we keep the government out of regulating or attempting to influence what goes into our food? No public service ads or no government money to study whether these additives are bad or good for us. Suppose that we say the government has no legitimate interest in how much salt is in our foods?


  • Proctor & Gamble is the master at this.

    “Fresh, new taste. ”

    “Add ingredients to make your table uniquely yours.”

  • “Improved.”

    I like the base of the Triscuit-style cracker, but I could do with about 1/4 the salt or less.

  • Going back to the paper that PD Shaw cites, most salt sensitivity is showing up in older people, which category, at 53, I’m slowly sliding into.

    These people, in the most part, are the war babies and mamas and daddies. And they grew up eating canned vegetables and Wonder bread, and any change is behind them. My mother-in-law, 90, to this day prefers canned green beans to fresh, even though she ate from the garden to start. It’s not the salt, but the convenience.

    Trying to change eating habits over the next 20 years or so is going to be hard slogging. We’ve made great inroads. I’ve taught the stepchildren, most times, to taste the food before they salt it. The elder has learned to distinguish sushi from bait, and the puree of garden asparagus soup I made last week was acceptable when I said “we’re eating asparagus, not condiments.”

  • PD Shaw Link

    Steve, my father has Hypotension, what is the FDA solution for that? Caveat: the new rules must effect everybody.

    From a dietary perspective the government is fetishizing salt. I doubt there are many people in America for which salt is their number one dietary problem.

    Take cottage cheese. You can google around and find that people have tried low-salt cottage cheese, didn’t like it (tasted like soggy cardboard) and stopped eating cottage cheese altogether. Was that a good idea? Was it a good idea for the government to demonize saturated fats? The result was increased use of transfats.

    BTW/ It’s not legal in a pre-regulatory system to put something harmful in somebody else’s food. Salt is not harmful — it’s like about nine million other things, which need to be consumed in moderation, keeping in mind all of the trade-offs. I don’t believe government, acting as B.F. Skinner, can do it, nor should it do it.

  • steve Link

    PD- Are they planning to directly regulate salt itself? Not as far as I know. Your father could add extra salt if he wants. Anyone could. Anyway, I am not advocating for government regulating salt content, I just asked a straightforward question. If too much salt is bad for us, how do we reduce its intake sans government involvement? How would markets accomplish this goal? You seem to be saying, or at least others are saying, that we have no recourse. Whatever is put into our food, we will just eat it. Or, are you saying we should not care?


  • The market is doing pretty well, if I can judge by the produce sections of the little family-owned chain here. There is a larger variety of fresh fruits and vegetables now than there was 10 years ago, or even five. We can buy arugula in a town of 5,000.

    They keep a steady stream of sales on low-priced cuts of meat, like shoulder roasts and pork butts.

    We can buy low sodium boths, reduced-salt canned vegetables, and a large array of frozen vegetables. Saltines are available with or without additional salt on top.

    What is the market not doing for someone who gives a damn?

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