Add sodium to the growing list of ingredients and foods that are responsible for obesity, poor heart health, and a whole host of ailments. At least that is what some health professionals would like us to think as they lobby the federal government to reduce sodium levels in foods over the next 10 years. So successful are current efforts that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is accepting comments on reduced sodium diets through January 27.
Sodium, in the form of salt, has been a staple in human diets for centuries. It has played a critical role in preserving foods such as meat and cheese. And with that preservation came improved food safety and more balanced diets. As our taste buds evolved, so did our craving for salt.
It is estimated that today's Americans consume between 3,400 and 3,500 milligrams each day. That is much higher than the 2,300-milligram recommendation for the general public and the 1,500-level for those with hypertension and high blood pressure. It is that high consumption that has some health professionals asking FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to reduce sodium levels in most processed foods. They believe dietary recommendations are not having the desired impact. But will that improve human health?
In a review of 167 scientific studies, Danish researchers concluded the evidence was mixed when attempting to improve heart health with low-sodium diets. They found that low-sodium diets reduced blood pressure by 3.5 percent for whites with hypertension. But, that reduction came at a cost; blood cholesterol rose by 2.5 percent and triglycerides jumped 7 percent. Among blacks and Asians, there was a slightly greater improvement.
This research again proves there is no silver bullet as our society grapples with obesity and other health issues. Eliminating high-sodium foods such as cheese will not slim waist lines. Foods, physical activity, and caloric intake all work together to affect human health.
Most dairy products have naturally low sodium levels. However, salt is an integral part of the cheesemaking process acting as a preservative and giving cheese its flavor. Replacing lost nutrients by eliminating cheese from diets will have detrimental consequences. While cheese only accounts for 7.8 percent of the sodium in diets, it represents 21 percent of calcium, 11 percent of phosphorus, and 9 percent of protein.
This is a high-stakes issue for our industry. Per capita cheese consumption is at an all-time high. While we are making inroads at reducing sodium content in cheese, we need to voice our concerns with FDA's sodium reduction plan. Comments are due by January 27. Go to www.regulations.gov to voice your opinion. Be sure to include docket number FDA-2011-N-0400 when giving comments.
This Hoard's Dairyman editorial appeared in the January 10, 2012 issue on page 12.