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Expanding the Dialogue on Sodium

After reading the President’s Message on “Food Science and Sodium” by Dr. Roger Clemens in the January issue of Food Technology magazine, I assume that this column has generated considerable feedback and I would like to add my two cents worth. Roger and I have in the past had some friendly debates on this issue, which I think is healthy.

I come to the sodium issue as someone who has considerable experience with human taste perception, in general, and salt taste perception, in particular. But I claim no special expertise on blood pressure regulation or on how much sodium humans ought to consume. Hence, I have nothing authoritative to say on the salt intake health controversy other than to suggest that to describe recommendations by the vast majority of health professionals and relevant government agencies worldwide as “conventional wisdom” is a bit misleading.

I was a member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee on “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States” and, as such, I am quite familiar with this report. The comments I make are strongly influenced by my service on this committee, but they are my own and should not be considered to represent the other committee members’ views.

I believe Dr. Clemens’ contention that the IOM report “motivated” the USDA to alter dietary guidelines is not accurate. To my knowledge, we had no role in any guideline setting. My conclusion is supported by recent discussions with several other participants in the committee deliberations.

I completely agree with Dr. Clemens’ statement that the consumers’ taste preference for foods with added salt remains high. I also strongly support Dr. Clemens’ recommendations that a sodium-monitoring program to determine national taste preferences of consumers would be valuable. Indeed, this was one of the recommendations in the IOM report. Further, although we do have some information on sodium intake in various populations as documented in the IOM report, Dr. Clemens’ call for a more complete understanding of this important variable is welcome.

I also agree with Dr. Clemens’ call for more sharing of data by food scientists and technologists on what they have learned from reformulating products and the effects of these reformulation strategies on quality, taste, and consumer acceptance. By sharing successes and failures in sodium-reduction efforts, the industry as a whole as well as the general public could benefit. As you may know, the IOM panel held public sessions to try to obtain such data but there are obvious difficulties in convincing industry to make details public.

Dr. Clemens says that a uniform reduction in the sodium content of food is not an effective strategy. I concur with Roger on this point and as far as I know, no one is suggesting this approach. What the IOM report did suggest was that a gradual reduction of salt in manufactured foods, the amounts dependent on the food category, could be effective. Indeed, the need to engage the food industry in this endeavor was recognized throughout the report. From my own experience in conducting experimental studies on varying salt levels in various foods, I appreciate some of the major technical issues that are often food-specific. These difficulties were communicated to the entire IOM committee by a subset of members who also belonged to the IFT, and they are specifically addressed throughout the report.

Finally, Dr. Clemens concludes that “the current approach to sodium reduction is not effective, as consumers eat more salt today than ever despite steady reductions in the sodium content of food.” It is precisely this kind of conclusion that convinced the IOM committee that if we are to reduce sodium intake in the U.S. population as a whole, as currently recommended by the vast majority of federal and nongovernmental organizations, a different approach needs to be taken. As Dr. Clemens states and as the IOM report documented, recommendations, admonitions, and good faith attempts by industry have not worked and it is not clear to me from his column what additional activities he is advocating to change this more than 40-year history of failure.

In the end, Dr. Clemens makes two distinct points. First, he calls into question the necessity or desirability of reducing salt in the U.S. diet. Second, he disputes the strategy recommended by the IOM to attain this goal. But if he is correct on the first point, then the second is not worth talking about. This leaves me somewhat confused about what Dr. Clemens is advocating and I wonder whether other IFT members may share my confusion.

For all the years I have been involved in work on salt, sodium intake, health, and taste, it has been a controversial and contentious topic—and I guess this is not going to change any time soon!

Gary BeauchampGary K. Beauchamp
Director
Monell Chemical Senses Center
beauchamp@monell.org

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