I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t like salty things. Pretzels, hot dogs, pickles? Bring ’em on. And yes, I know that I’m probably dehydrated a lot of the time from all these sodium-dense foods.
Sadly for me, the New England Journal of Medicine published a new study on Wednesday claiming that reducing salt intake by one half-teaspoon a day (that’s just a pinch!) could prevent nearly 100,000 heart attacks and 92,000 deaths each year.
That seems like quite a claim, but all that salt really adds up. Consider this: High blood pressure (and therefore heart attacks and heart disease) is definitively linked to salt over-consumption. Reducing salt reduces heart problems, which reduces deaths by heart disease.
This isn’t to say all salt is bad. We need it to live, but right now it’s in everything from cereal to cheese, and in very high quantities for almost anything canned or otherwise preserved for extra-long shelf life. Since it’s impossible to take salt out of foods we buy, most of us end up consuming more of it than we think. The average American man consumes 4,178 milligrams of sodium a day, which is roughly the size of one sugar cube. Chew on that fact.
New York is already way ahead of Philadelphia and the rest of the country on this public-health concern. Earlier this month, the city presented a proposal to reduce sodium in both packaged and restaurant foods, with a long-term goal of reducing Americans’ sodium consumption by 20 percent in five years. The idea is for food-industry leaders to voluntarily reduce salt levels, since about 80 percent of Americans’ entire sodium intake comes from pre-prepared food. New York’s requested sodium reductions are not mandatory for now, but if enough companies comply, the standards will no doubt become law in the near future as non-complying companies cave in to peer pressure.
And the healthcare costs saved by sodium reduction shouldn’t be forgotten. Some people balk at the idea of any sort of decisions made in the name of better public health over individual choice, but fewer taxes for public health care should make the idea more palatable. The NEJM study estimates healthcare-cost savings of $10 to $24 billion annually if salt intake is reduced by three grams daily.
But New York has always been on the cutting edge of public health. Even though the city’s Department of Health is modeling its National Salt Reduction Initiative after a similar campaign in the United Kingdom, it’s spearheading the initiative’s coalition of health departments and professional organizations on this side of the Atlantic.
In the past, New York’s prohibition of trans fat (artificial artery-clogging fat) was quickly mimicked by Philadelphia and California. New York was also the first city to require calorie labels in chain restaurants like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Philadelphia has again followed suit, approving menu-labeling laws last spring. Later this year, restaurant chains will be required to post calorie counts for their menu items.
Considering our city’s copycat trend, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that Philadelphia will jump on the sodium-reduction bandwagon soon enough, and hopefully that will happen. Philadelphia has one of the least healthy reputations of major metropolitan areas, and our famous pretzels and cheesesteaks are undeniably high in both calories and sodium.
It’s great that we’ve done so well at following current health trends, but the next step should be Philadelphia initiating them. Philadelphia has several major hospitals and a sizable health-conscious population of students, young professionals and faculty — many of them with strong Penn ties. We can make a serious commitment to finding the next big movement in healthy and sustainable food, whether it’s reducing pesticides or eliminating sugar. New York certainly can’t have exhausted all the latest and greatest public-health programs.
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