The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), one of the few openly authoritarian organizations functioning in the United States, once sued the federal government for refusing to regulate Americans’ salt intake. No worries. This week, the Obama administration finally embraced CSPI’s junk science and allowed the FDA to set new “guidelines” to “nudge” companies into treating a perfectly harmless ingredient as if it were a dangerous chemical.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell explained that pressuring private companies into lowering sodium levels is “about putting power back in the hands of consumers.” Of course, consumers already have an array of bland, low-sodium choices if they desire. But in progressive-speak, limiting choices is tantamount to attaining power. According to our government, consumers having too many choices means “the deck has been stacked against them.”
The good news is that the FDA is almost always wrong about everything. The bad news is that these guidelines set an incredibly ridiculous precedent that allows intrusive government to mislead Americans with bad advice.
But let’s concede for a moment that sodium is killing you.
If you’re one of those last starry-eyed idealists, you may ask yourself: “What governing principle empowers the Obama administration to launch crusades that ensure every citizen is living salubriously? What principle authorizes the state to control how salty my soup is?” Life is a killer, after all. If DC can regulate the amounts of ingredients in foods — not poisonous ingredients or instantaneously unhealthy ingredients or even hidden ingredients, but ingredients that the CSPI has decided to whine about — what can’t it regulate? And if salt is worthy of all this attention, why is the Obama administration allowing citizens to commit mass suicide ingesting sugar? Or dairy? Or bleached white flour? Or canola oil?
“Americans need to reduce their sodium intake to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke,” explained CSPI president, Michael F. Jacobson, to ABC News after the FDA released its memo. “If companies achieved the FDA’s proposed targets, it would have a huge benefit for the public’s health. If companies don’t achieve these voluntary targets, it would be clear that mandatory limits will be necessary to reach safe sodium levels.” (Exasperated italics mine.)
Now, you may ask yourself, “Who the hell is Michael F. Jacobson to tell me what I need to do?” Well, Jacobson’s organization, meticulously debunked since 1971, now says that if you don’t do something voluntarily then the government has the duty to force you. Which sounds about right these days on almost every front.
But setting all that aside, what happens if salt isn’t even bad for you? What if CSPI is wrong as usual? What if the FDA is pushing flawed science and compelling companies to engage in practices that will do nothing to improve public health? What if these practices end up hurting people?
Not long ago, the CDC — which has a long history of making exaggerated claims about food — commissioned the National Academy of Medicine to assess scores of studies conducted on salt intake. It found that most studies showed no relationship between sodium intake and health. Some, in fact, found that salt had beneficial effects. A peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association study, which followed 3,700 healthy people for eight years, found similar benefits.
This week a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. In May European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine — an excellent measure of prior consumption — the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.
Obviously, there is still disagreement over what these studies mean. But surely the FDA has no business authorizing a position on salt when none has been reached in the scientific community. “The science is uncertain,” Steven Nissen, a leading expert on cardiovascular medicine told USA Today this week. “If you’re in the general population, I can’t support the widespread recommendation to reduce sodium intake.”
Now, I get that this saves Americans the bother of thinking or acting for themselves, which is how we like it. Americans want to label everything and be warned about all things. All things. A new poll by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal (h/t Reason) found that 80 percent of people surveyed want labels on food containing DNA. The number is nearly the same as those who support labeling foods with GMOs, which have been found to be about as dangerous as DNA.
No doubt, if we asked people about salt, we’d see similar reactions. Generally, though, those who want to be healthy use the tools they have and others do not. For those who care, for instance, the FDA just updated all of its nutritional information on most packaged foods. It’s one thing to try and ensure more transparency, and it’s another for the government to solidify bad science and engage in needlessly intrusive policies that attempt to dictate what we can eat.