A public health victory and challenge – National Consumers League

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow 

Finally! There is some good news about the way that Americans are eating. The CDC announced recently that blood levels of trans-fats decreased by 58% between 2000 and 2008. This reduction means that Americans are consuming far less trans-fats than they were 10 years ago.

Why this dramatic change?  One reason is that FDA began requiring trans-fat labeling on foods in 2003. Because the fat had garnered a nasty reputation for causing heart disease, many food producers reformulated their products so that they now contain less trans-fat.  Additionally, some local governments, such as New York City, put limits on the use of trans-fats in cooking at restaurants.

What this dramatic reduction proves is that government regulations, in this case food labeling, work. Despite the good news about trans-fats, there are still many areas of the American diet which could use improvement, and salt consumption is chief among them.

As we’ve mentioned before, the government recommends that Americans consume only 2300 mg of sodium per day.  For African Americans, those with chronic health conditions and those who are 51 year older and above, that recommended level is even lower at 1500 mg per day.  The average American consumes around 3300 mg of sodium per day, far outstripping even the most generous recommendations.

One of the reasons that Americans consume so much sodium is that it has become ubiquitous in processed and restaurant foods.  It is often present at much higher levels than the average consumer would assume.  Bread, for example, is the number one source of sodium in the American diet, according to the CDC.  Many consumers may not be aware that they are consuming large amounts of sodium when they eat a slice of bread.

As the case of trans-fats suggests, government oversight is likely to be the most effective vehicle for reducing sodium intake.  One such type of enforcement would be to regulate the amount of sodium allowed in foods, based on category appropriate guidelines which account for naturally occurring sodium.  By limiting the amount of sodium, the government would protect consumers and encourage companies to reformulate their products so that they contain less sodium.

The reduction of trans-fat in the American diet is a public health victory but we shouldn’t stop there. Going forward, reducing sodium consumption to the recommended levels should be one of public health’s top priorities.