Wednesday, September 19

FDA salt crackdown is in bad taste


A customer fills a tray with salad at Greenhouse, a restaurant in Ackerman Union that provides healthy, low-sodium food options to students and others on campus.

A customer fills a tray with salad at Greenhouse, a restaurant in Ackerman Union that provides healthy, low-sodium food options to students and others on campus. Maya Sugarman


The FDA recommends a daily allowance of sodium not in excess of 2,300 milligrams, a boundary the average American has a hard time respecting despite the threat of hypertension and heart disease. Because its recommendation is being taken with a grain of salt, the FDA is currently planning to overstep its own boundaries as a government regulatory agency by placing legal limits on the amount of salt processed foods can contain.

By forcing a personal dietary choice on a hapless public it was meant to protect, the FDA would cease to be a noble guardian against predatory corporations and instead become a taxpayer-funded babysitting service.

This proposed regulation is the culmination of 30 years of worry on the part of health officials that, by appealing to taste buds that make us want more salt than we need, the In-N-Outs of the world are slowly poisoning us. The Institute of Medicine, the independent organization Congress asked to form the sodium reduction strategies the FDA is now considering, plans to lower salt content gradually such that food “remains flavorful to the customer.” The institute seems to think that government regulation of the way foods can taste is acceptable, just as long as the consumer is blissfully unaware.

Past efforts at reduction have failed and health officials are frustrated. Nutrition labels have gone unheeded, and to no one’s surprise, corporations have largely ignored the FDA’s pleas to voluntarily reduce sodium in their food products. The demand for salty food is simply there. And as long as we’re aware that America is called an obese nation for a reason, a governmental babysitter should have no cause to translate moral judgments of that demand into legislation.

The FDA and its consulting institute would argue that apathy has left us deplorably unaware of our salt addiction. Salt hasn’t yet enjoyed the same kind of negative press as the devil on the nutrition label, trans fat. Certainly, the first time one learns that a lifetime of poor dietary choices has left them hypertensive shouldn’t be post-bypass.

But if awareness is the issue, the FDA’s task is already complete. The sodium content of any food product is available to consumers, and the agency’s recommendations and warnings about the corresponding health risks are freely accessible. The onus is on us to seek out the information and do with it what we will.

But since the average American consumes several times more than the recommended daily allowance of salt, we’re either killing ourselves knowingly or, more likely, failing to monitor our daily consumption. The FDA seems to want to take this failure as just cause to change our diets on our behalf, but, as anyone who’s ever tried to talk their way out of a ticket knows, ignorance of the law is no excuse ““ especially when it’s the law of biology that, if skirted at McDonald’s once too often, will kill you. In fact, it’s far more reasonable to expect people to study what their food is doing to their bodies than to read California’s entire penal code.

The argument for the freedom to eat junk food is largely dependent on one’s freedom of choice. If people aren’t making dietary choices of their own free will, then perhaps government intervention would be just. Proponents of regulation would say that the mere availability of healthy alternatives cannot equate to total freedom of choice.

Take the UCLA campus, for example. Barring a sack lunch, your options for healthy, low-sodium dining are limited to Greenhouse and a few other restaurants that offer salad-like alternatives. And even salad is no guarantee of reasonable salt content if it contains ingredients beyond leafy greens.

Otherwise, try a single slice of pepperoni pizza from Sbarro with 2,200 milligrams of salt ““ your daily allowance in a few bites. But however disconcerting this is, the overwhelming availability of junk food is not the same as a state of affairs in which healthy eating could be called prohibitively difficult. We still have the option to not eat pizza.

There are, of course, groups for whom diet is not a choice. On a price-per-calorie basis, junk food is significantly cheaper than nutritious alternatives. Lower-income people, then, can’t be expected to avoid salty food. Nor can children whose pizza-centric school lunches have led retired military officers to complain that public education is making the nation’s youth unfit for service. But the plight of these groups is an invitation to seek health solutions for them specifically. An Arizona elementary school, for instance, has barred children from packing their lunch boxes with processed food ““ a localized effort free of government intervention. In compensating for a lack of choice among some groups, the rest of us should not have our choice to consume gratuitous amounts of salt constricted.

A government inclined to power does not readily admit that the cost of freedom is sometimes death. To the extent that we believe self-restraint possible at all, we also have to believe that we make choices concerning our own bodies fully aware that death might be among the outcomes.

As taxpayer-subsidized health insurance becomes more ubiquitous, though, advocates of salt regulation are likely to invoke the “motorcycle helmet” argument; that is, if the public pays for your health, you have no right to risk your body. But this argument, if valid, justifies any number of absurd regulations, like the restriction of calorie content in fast food ““ after all, it contributes to obesity.

In subsidizing portions of health insurance, the government has to accept that the system will be abused. Otherwise, its free handouts will cease to be free. The cost will be a regulation of what we can and cannot do to our bodies where previously there was none.

E-mail Dosaj at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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