AMA calls for cutting salt in food by 50%


CHICAGO -- The American Medical Association voted overwhelmingly yesterday to back a campaign to halve the amount of sodium in restaurant and processed foods during the next 10 years.

At the same time, the nation's largest doctors group urged the Food and Drug Administration to revoke rules that have allowed sodium to go unregulated for decades. Under the rules, salt and its component sodium are included in the "generally recognized as safe" category.

The AMA's support for revoking salt's status is similar to a petition filed last fall by the Center for Scientists in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group, which also sought to void the rule.

Americans consume an average of 4,000 to 6,000 milligrams of sodium a day, and the resulting hypertension and cardiovascular disease costs the health care system tens of billions of dollars, AMA officials said.

Dietary guidelines released last year set the maximum daily consumption of sodium at 2,300 milligrams and the maximum for people with high blood pressure, blacks and middle-aged and older adults at 1,500 milligrams.

"Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer of Americans. People who reduce dietary sodium intake are taking an important step in preventing future health problems," said Dr. J. James Rohack, a cardiologist and an AMA board member.

Rohack said congestive heart failure is the leading reason people older than 65 who are covered by the Medicare health insurance program are admitted to hospitals.

In a recommendation similar to the AMA's, the National Institutes of Health has called for a 5 percent annual reduction in sodium by food manufacturers, restaurants and consumers during the next 10 years to reduce the sodium content of packaged and restaurant food 50 percent.

The AMA's decision was decried by the Salt Institute, an industry trade group.

"The American Medical Association has misread the science, confusing blood pressure effects with health outcomes," said Richard L. Hanneman, the institute's president. "Following the AMA recommendation is scientifically unjustified and a waste of time and money. What we really need is a controlled trial of the health outcomes of salt reduction."

The AMA rejected that argument, saying in a committee report that "excess sodium greatly increases the chance of developing hypertension heart disease and stroke."

"Just one cup of canned soup can contain more than 50 percent of the FDA recommended daily allowance," Rohack said. "A serving of lasagna in a restaurant can put a diner over their recommended daily sodium allowance in just one meal. These examples stress the importance of a national reduction in the amount of sodium in processed and restaurant foods."

"You can't deal with this on your own," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI. "At least 80 percent of the sodium consumed by Americans is in restaurant and processed food. ... The FDA needs to put pressure on the entire food industry to gradually reduce sodium levels."

John Schmeltzer and Bruce Japsen write for the Chicago Tribune.

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