The High Cost and Deadly Consequences of Too Much Salt


As U.S. legislators look for ways to reduce the nation's health-care costs, they may soon tackle America's salt problem. Cutting Americans' salt intake by even 10% would probably prevent hundreds of thousands of strokes and heart attacks -- the first and third leading causes of death in the U.S., respectively -- and save the government tens of billions of dollars, U.S. researchers wrote in the March 2 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

Often, it's not until a dollar value is attached to a problem -- and a cost-savings is attached to a solution -- that governments move forward with initiatives. We've known for years that consuming too much salt drives up blood pressure, thus increasing the risks of strokes and heart disease. Yet most Americans still eat more than twice the recommended amount of salt.

It's not usually their fault, though -- the American consumer isn't the one pouring on most of that salt: Nearly 90% of our salt intake actually comes from canned and packaged goods, such as soups and frozen dinners, as well as from breads and cereals. Restaurant foods are also high in salt.

Last month, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that reducing the average American's salt intake by just 3 grams a day -- half a teaspoon -- would save 92,000 lives a year and $24 billion in health care costs. And last week, the Institute of Medicine declared high blood pressure a "neglected disease" that costs the U.S. health system $73.4 billion a year.

Collaborating With Industry Is a Better Solution Than Taxing It

Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, wrote in the editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine that sodium reduction initiatives involving the food industry in other countries have been successful. He cites a study that examined two options. The first, a collaboration between the government and the food industry to cut salt in processed food; the second, a tax on salt that would increase prices and therefore lower the intake. The research seems to favor the first option.

If the industry cuts salt intake by 9.5%, the researchers say, it could prevent 480,358 heart attacks and 531,885 strokes in Americans currently aged 40 to 85 years over the course of their lives, and save the U.S. government $32.1 billion in medical costs. To compare, a tax that would increase the price of salt by 40% and lower intake by 6%, would prevent 327,892 strokes and 306,137 heart attacks in the same population, and save about $22.4 billion.

In 2003, the U.K. introduced a voluntary strategy to decrease the sodium content of processed and packaged food, which has resulted in reductions of 20% to 30% in most processed food sold in stores. Other countries have either implemented or recently begun similar initiatives, as has New York City.

Consumers Don't Notice Gradual Reductions

The government, though, may want to keep its efforts quiet. In the past, several food companies preparing for such initiatives to lower salt have attempted to do so, but found that labeling their products "low salt" caused fewer people to buy them. Often the reason was that the sudden large drop in sodium caused consumers to the product no longer tasted as good. But often, sales decreased just because consumers assumed the product would not taste as good. So this time, companies are reducing sodium gradually, and more importantly, quietly.

The Wall Street Journal
tells how by next summer, ConAgra Food's (CAG) Chef Boyardee canned pasta will have decreased its sodium by about 35% over the course of five years without a word on its packages. The company recently said that by 2015 it would lower the sodium level in about 80% of its products by an average of 20%.

Campbell Soup's (CPB) V8 vegetable juice also silently dropped its sodium by 32% over eight years, and sales have held up well. Campbell says it has already reduced sodium in the top-selling products in all its categories by nearly 24% since 2001. Sara Lee (SLE) made a similar commitment, and Unilever (UN), too, is reducing salt.

The question is, are these commitments from food makers enough, or will the U.S. government have to place sodium restrictions on the industry food industry? Regardless, consumers need to keep sodium intake in mind.