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Processed Foods Have Less Sodium : Average Content Down, But Change Is Too Late for Many

August 20, 1987|NINA KILLHAM | The Washington Post

As the campaign against salt continues, there comes both good news and bad news.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has concluded that the average sodium content of processed foods is decreasing. However, it says, the rate is still too slow to help those 60 million Americans afflicted with high blood pressure, a condition said to be affected adversely by a high-sodium diet.

The trend to lower sodium content "is promising," said Bonnie Liebman, CSPI's director of nutrition. "It shows that the food industry is making some effort to reduce the high sodium content of their products. But it also means we have a long, long way to go."

She notes the average sodium content of the decreased sodium products is still more than 1,000 mg per food item; the National Academy of Sciences recommends a daily intake of between 1,300 and 3,300 mg.

Since 1983, CSPI has been tracking the sodium content of 100 individual commonly eaten foods in Part 1 of its study and 165 product lines containing 2,500 foods in Part 2.

From 1983 to 1986, the sodium content of 27 out of the 100 products dropped, whereas that of only nine increased.

Between 1985 and 1986, 15% of the 165 product lines showed decreased levels of sodium, whereas only 7% showed increased levels.

Not until this year, she said, has such a clear trend of decreases outnumbering increases been established.

On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration's studies--which track 1,200 products, weighing the value of products with higher sales more heavily--have shown virtually no change since 1978 in the sodium content of longstanding products.

Yet Ray Schucker of FDA's Office of Consumer Studies said there has been a dramatic sodium decrease in the food supply overall.

Schucker says that CSPI's survey does not include the reduced-sodium variations on old products and new low-sodium products that have been introduced by manufacturers in the past 10 years.

Because of these new products "the average value of the declared sodium in the food supply has declined sharply," Schucker said.

"Even if it means buying a different brand," he said, every product class has information available about its sodium content so that anyone trying to manage his or her sodium intake can act accordingly.

"That's nice," said Liebman, "but it's not the solution. We would like to see a decrease in their excesses in their regular line of products. A company will have 20 regular products and throw in one of low sodium. They are usually more expensive, and in some special dietetic section." These low-sodium products, she said, do not affect mainstream shoppers.

Jim Heimbach of the FDA, in turn, says that while the CSPI's survey is accurate as far as it goes, it's not representative of the whole food supply because it does not take into consideration the volume of sales of certain products.

"You can't make statements based on 2,500 foods and say the food industry has done so and so," he said.

To which Liebman replied, "Even though it is not perfect, our study does represent a huge number of products and it gives us a clue to what's going on."

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