02 February 2012

Our diet, under assault

Last month, I bought a bottle of vanilla extract so I could add an extra kick to my plain yogurt. Even though the store didn't ID me, my vanilla extract contained 35% alcohol by weight, in the form of bourbon. Why? Alcohol is used in the vanilla bean extraction process, and so to ensure quality, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that any product labeled as vanilla extract contain at least 35% ethanol. The FDA regulates quite a number of food additives, stipulating how much or how little can appear in our foods. It even regulates how many fly eggs (thirty) can be present in 100 grams of tomato paste.

Because of persistent lobbying by the food industry, the amount of sodium in foods is not regulated by the FDA. I attended a talk by a kidney specialist, who pointed out that the FDA requires all bars of antiperspirants to carry a warning: before using, anyone with kidney disease must consult with their physician. This is because the deodorant contains aluminum, which could theoretically harm those on dialysis if it somehow entered their bloodstream. He also held up a small bag of Cheez-Its, and pointed out they contain so much salt that eating them is an absolute disaster for someone on dialysis. But Cheez-Its carry no warning, because the FDA does not regulate salt content.

The Institute of Medicine released a strongly-worded 2010 report warning of dire consequences should the FDA fail to act soon. It points out that the average American adult consumes over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, far above the recommended daily value. Most of this sodium comes from processed foods--the IoM reports that about 5 percent of sodium consumption derives from salt added at the table. Unsurprisingly, about 29% of American adults have hypertension.

Perhaps sodium doesn't receive the attention the public pays to carbs, fat, and saturated fat because its effects are relatively hidden. Eating a persistently high-fat diet will give you an obvious belly. Eating a persistently high-sodium diet will predispose you to hypertension, which, until it becomes severe, is fairly asymptomatic.

But there is hope. The Obama administration and the USDA unveiled new standards for school lunches. Although industry lobbying weakened the regulations (since pizza contains tomato paste, it is counted as a vegetable), schoolchildren's lunches will soon contain more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and yes, less sodium. It's a step in the right direction.