The Government ‘Nutrition Police’ Are Going After Salt

COMMENTARY Public Health

The Government ‘Nutrition Police’ Are Going After Salt

Jun 6th, 2016 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Daren Bakst

Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy

Bakst studies and writes about agricultural and environmental policy and property rights, among other issues.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration continued its overreach into Americans’ dietary choices, seeking to manipulate consumer behavior so that Americans eat food that government bureaucrats think is ideal.

The FDA released voluntary sodium reduction goals seeking to lower individual sodium consumption to 2,300 mg per day. This would be achieved by “encouraging” manufacturers, restaurants, and food service operations to reduce sodium content in food.

The FDA is not merely identifying a general goal for individual consumption. The agency is detailing sodium content levels for well over a hundred food categories, from feta cheese to salad dressing.

Although the FDA’s sodium reduction targets are voluntary for now, this doesn’t mean they aren’t going to create significant problems for both companies and consumers.

Voluntary Guidance Often Leads to Mandatory Rules

While the targets may be voluntary, there’s every reason to believe that the next step will be mandatory requirements. The FDA has shown a willingness, as it did with the de facto ban on artificial trans fat, to take ingredients out of the food supply for nutrition reasons. Of course, sodium is required for life, so there won’t be a ban on sodium, but mandatory limits on sodium content in food is a real possibility.

This guidance will create intensive pressure on food companies and restaurants to be in compliance. This pressure is going to come from external forces, such as advocacy groups, media, and policymakers. Federal and state agencies will use this guidance as justification for other policies that they may want to adopt. Once companies begin meeting these voluntary goals, it becomes much easier for the FDA to shift towards a mandatory scheme; after all, many companies, as the FDA would argue, would already be meeting the requirements.

FDA Is Disrespecting Individual Choices and Showing Its Continued Arrogance

There has been a drastic change at the FDA, from worrying about the safety of the food to trying to dictate or manipulate what people should eat. This goes beyond labeling to actually trying to change the food supply itself.

There’s an important philosophical question that goes beyond merely how much sodium consumption is appropriate. Should the federal government continue to disrespect Americans and undermine our freedom to choose what we want to eat?

The FDA certainly thinks so, and this is grounded in a belief that these bureaucrats know what food you should and shouldn’t eat.

Some people may want higher sodium products. This is their prerogative and the federal government shouldn’t interfere in their fundamental freedom to eat what they want. The FDA doesn’t take into account the complexity of dietary choices and the unintended consequences of its actions.

If sodium content is reduced across the board, what impact would that have on dietary decisions?  Would Americans eat more “salty” foods in general to meet their desire for sodium? Would they merely add salt to their food?

Just as dietary decisions are complex, so too are dietary needs. Individuals can make better choices, often in consultation with their physicians, to best meet their own health needs. Further, if consumers demand lower sodium food, the market will respond accordingly.

To even think that there’s some objective measure of an appropriate level of sodium is arrogant enough, especially given the weak science on the matter. The FDA’s attempt to manipulate sodium content across foods takes the agency’s arrogance to a new level.

The federal government has a long history of providing poor nutritional guidance. For example, there was the federal government’s 1992 food pyramid that encouraged carbohydrate consumption and didn’t distinguish between fats. Nutritional guidance is always changing, and often completely reversing course by going back to previous understandings of what was nutritious.

In addition to all of these problems, the FDA is pushing these sodium goals based on a very shaky scientific foundation. There have been a wide number of recent studies that counter the need for such drastic reductions.

As Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steven Nissen said, “There’s emerging evidence that salt is not as evil as many people have suggested.” He further noted, “Several recent studies seem to show that in otherwise healthy people, fanatical measures are not necessary to control their salt intake.”

This isn’t the end of the federal government’s intrusion into your “freedom to eat.” Mandatory sodium regulations are likely coming.

The FDA, which seems to be constantly complaining about funding, needs to get back to its mission and stop trying to be the federal nutrition dictator. Congress needs to stop this attack on freedom once and for all.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal