CHICAGO – The American Medical Association on Tuesday overwhelmingly agreed to back a campaign to halve the amount of sodium in restaurant and processed foods during the next 10 years.
At the same time, the nation’s largest doctors group urged the Food and Drug Administration to revoke rules that have allowed sodium to go unregulated for decades. The rule has allowed salt and its component sodium to be treated as “generally recognized as safe.”
The move by the AMA’s 544-member House of Delegates to back revocation of the special status salt has enjoyed is similar to a petition filed last fall by the Center for Scientists in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group, seeking to void the rule.
Americans consume about 4,000 milligrams to 6,000 milligrams of sodium per day and the resulting hypertension and cardiovascular disease costs the health care system “tens of billions of dollars,” AMA officials said.
Dietary guidelines released last year set the maximum daily consumption of sodium at 2,300 milligrams, while 1,500 milligrams was set as the maximum for people with high blood pressure, blacks, and middle age and older adults.
“Cardiovascular disease remains the No. 1 killer of Americans. People who reduce dietary sodium intake are taking an important step in preventing future health problems,” said Dr. J. James Rohack, a cardiologist and an AMA board member.
Rohack said congestive heart failure is the leading reason people over 65 who are covered by the Medicare health insurance program are admitted to the hospital. Just one overnight stay in a hospital for a Medicare patient can cost the government insurance program several thousand dollars.
The AMA is now on board with the National Institutes of Health which also has recommended a 5 percent per year reduction in sodium by manufacturers, restaurants and consumers during the next 10 years to bring sodium use in packaged and restaurant food down by 50 percent.
The AMA’s decision was decried by the Salt Institute, an industry trade group.
“The American Medical Association has misread the science, confusing blood pressure effects with health outcomes,” said Richard L. Hanneman, Salt Institute president. “Following the AMA recommendation is scientifically unjustified and a waste of time and money. What we really need is a controlled trial of the health outcomes of salt reduction.”
The AMA, however, rejected that argument saying in a committee report “excess sodium greatly increases the chance of developing hypertension heart disease and stroke.”
“Just one cup of canned soup can contain more than 50 percent of the FDA-recommended daily allowance,” said Rohack. “A serving of lasagna in a restaurant can put a diner over their recommended daily sodium allowance in just one meal. These examples stress the importance of a national reduction in the amount of sodium in processed and restaurant foods.”
CSPI estimates that cutting salt consumption by 50 percent would save 150,000 lives per year, and reduce medical care and other costs by $1.5 trillion over 20 years.
Although an AMA policy stance cannot force action, the national group representing 250,000 physicians wields considerable clout in Washington. Its support could embolden health policy-makers and make it hard for the FDA not to at least look at the sodium issue, observers say.