Big Brother’s bland bullying

J. Justin Wilson Senior Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom
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From taxing soft drinks to banning bake sales, public health activists and dietary do-gooders have been beating us up over what we eat and drink.

Now they want to rub salt in our wounds.

Last week the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report titled “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States.” Among other recommendations, the report states that the FDA should target salt’s status as “GRAS” (Generally Recognized as Safe) and establish guidelines on how much can be in certain foods, before lowering it as part of a gradual “step-down” process.

In other words, government-mandated blandness may not be far off.

But while the FDA considers its options on how to deal with the “salt epidemic” (to soon be followed by the “caffeine epidemic”), the potential effects of federal action are quite opaque. Even one IOM spokesperson admitted “an initiative like this has a number of unknowns.”

That’s quite true—starting with shaky science.

According to a study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology in October, most bodies naturally regulate our sodium intake, ensuring that sodium levels remain within a certain range at all times. This means that the FDA’s initiative could have little more than another exercise in government-backed futility.

And the health effects of a countrywide sodium reduction are far from crystallized. “It is unclear what effects a low sodium diet has on cardiovascular events and mortality,” concluded a 2002 review in the British Medical Journal.

What about salt reduction’s supposed benefits for lowering our blood pressure? Just ask Michael Alderman, editor of the American Journal of Hypertension. He called New York City’s own initiative to reduce sodium “an experiment on a whole population.”

And let’s not forget that salt reduction has led to an increase in blood pressure in some people. Because of the variance of how people deal with salt, then, there’s no one-size-fits-all amount that the government can mandate.

Leave it to public health activists to push invasive initiatives without having evidence. To them, it’s about command-and-control. But there could be other headaches courtesy of the salt busybodies.

Consider the notorious “food police” at the self-named Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). For three decades CSPI has demonized salt, calling it the “deadly white powder you already snort.” CSPI even frivolously sued the restaurant chain Denny’s last year over—surprise—the salt content of its dishes, assuring that their litigation was in “the public interest.”

If the FDA revokes salt’s status as “generally recognized as safe”—a status given to other “controversial” ingredients like pepper, basil, and sesame—the floodgates could be opened for CSPI and then trial lawyer networks to sue over everything from hash browns and sausage patties to canned soup and smoked ham.

And from the ever-reliable law of unintended consequences, New York Times science columnist John Tierney notes that a salt reduction could conceivably make Americans fatter. How? Because we’d eat larger amounts of low-sodium food to try to get back to the old levels of salt intake that our bodies are used to.

As Tierney jokes: “Never bet against the expansion of Americans’ waistlines, especially not when public health experts get involved.”

And after the War on Salt doesn’t pan out the way overzealous food regulators hoped, they’ll likely resort to more and more top-down, heavy-handed rules under the banner of “public health.”

What’s next? Declaring soy sauce a controlled substance? Establishing a squad of ‘Floss Police’ (but only after we pass universal dental care)?

You’d think it can’t happen. But when it comes to the nanny state, everything’s apparently on the table—except the saltshaker.

J. Justin Wilson is the Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.