Industry News | July 10, 2008

Nutrient Essentials: Sodium and the Healthy Plate, Day 1

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National Restaurant Association (NRA) Chairman Michael Kaufman opened the first day of the NRA’s “Sodium and the Healthy Plate” symposium with a proactive message, urging the restaurant and foodservice industry to lead history’s most discerning diners in making healthy choices.

“It’s a pioneering effort for this association,” Kaufman told the crowd at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency, “but we must proactively consider the role of the restaurant industry in support [of consumer decisions for healthy eating].”

Kaufman’s words afforded the symposium a positive flair from the start and set the stage for a slew of industry insiders to offer their thoughts, findings, and perspectives on the sodium debate.

Johns Hopkins University professor Dr. Lawrence Appel left no question to his motives when he began his 45-minute talk by stating his conclusion. The bottom line, Appel said, is that reducing salt intake lowers blood pressure and the subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease. He was the first of four presenters on the day to note that 77 percent of dietary sodium arrives from food processing while only six percent comes tableside.

“This means that food manufacturers and restaurants really determine how much sodium the public consumes,” Appel said, a challenge to the industry’s social consciousness.

The first of four speakers under the symposium’s title topic, “Sodium and the Healthy Plate,” Dr. Barry Dickinson reported that numerous credible organizations put the average Americans’ daily sodium intake somewhere in the 2,000- to 4,000-milligram window, a jump over the recommended amount of 2,300 milligrams.

“The intake goals cannot be achieved unless food producers and restaurant preparation practices in the U.S. are modified,” Dickinson charged, adding that such a movement would require collaboration from physicians and steady consumer education.

Past American Dietetic Association President Connie Diekman followed, attempting to put sodium usage in its proper perspective. Diekman acknowledged that sodium remains an essential mineral to one’s health.

“We have to be careful not to convey to the consumer that sodium is bad. We only need 500 milligrams per day; that’s the message the consumer needs to hear,” Diekman said of sodium, which helps maintain fluid balances, regulate blood pressure, and ensure nerve impulses.

Penny Kris-Etherton, president of Shaping America’s Health, discussed implementation strategies, conceding the widening gap between dietary recommendations and consumer actions. Many organizations suggest lower sodium and higher potassium, but Kris-Etherton noted the inconsistency of that message. She challenged restaurants to meet current dietary recommendations, encouraging particular attention be paid to grain products, meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts.

“All of these,” she said, “can have a significant impact on consumer health.”

Barbara Schneeman led the discussion on policy by reviewing the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) position on sodium. During her legalese-laden talk addressing the FDA’s history with the nutrient, Schneeman said the FDA has chosen labeling rather than regulation to encourage lower sodium intakes.

New York City Department of Health Director Sonia Angell discussed her city’s push to make the default choice the healthy choice as well as the Big Apple’s continued investigation of sodium and blood pressure, sparked in large part by the United Kingdom’s strong-armed efforts with front-of-the-package labeling.

Perhaps the first day’s most notable speaker arrived when Dr. Michael Jacobson took the podium. Long an advocate for transparency, Jacobson applauded the NRA for its inquiry and cited ConAgra for its self-evaluation, yet soon after attacked the FDA for its outdated assessment of sodium as well as challenging restaurants to make wiser purchasing choices. He predicted that any industry change would gradually lead to a corresponding shift in consumer tastes.

Dr. Robert Earl offered the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) creed. Contrasting Jacobson, Earl, a senior director with the GMA, warned of government regulation, which he said often leads to one-size-fits-all legislation. He identified products that have voluntarily dropped sodium levels. In 1963, Earl said a bag of frozen peas had 497 milligrams of sodium; today, that number is less than 100 milligrams. He called for added research, including dietary guidelines as well as salt alternatives.

Day one concluded with NRA Nutrition Policy Director Sheila Weiss. Her message: Any changes would take time in an industry that is projected to serve as many as 80 billion meals in 2008.

While the FDA continues investigating ways to reduce sodium in restaurants, the NRA offered key suggestions, including chef education, using different spices and fresh produce items, and working with suppliers to gradually decrease sodium levels.

--Daniel P. Smith

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