WASHINGTON — Even as pressure is rising and spreading from the federal government for food companies to reduce sodium content, the American Bakers Association is pushing back hard. While reiterating a long-term commitment dating back decades to gradually reduce sodium, the A.B.A. is citing new scientific data that raises serious doubts about recent pushes for sharp reductions of sodium in the food supply.
The A.B.A. is making its case in comments submitted in a Jan. 27 letter to the Food and Drug Administration in response to an F.D.A. request for such comments, published in the Sept. 15 edition of the Federal Register. The letter was written by Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs at the A.B.A.
Indicative of the importance of the sodium issue to the bakers, the letter was written in conjunction with an A.B.A. Sodium White Paper published in January, and the comments are based on the paper. The paper, “Considerations for reducing sodium in the baking industry,” was prepared based in part on the results of an A.B.A. benchmarking survey on sodium reduction conducted between May 2010 and November 2011.
“Many bakers are committed to sodium reduction, and this commitment is demonstrated by the efforts that many companies have undertaken during the past few decades,” Ms. Sanders said.
The benchmarking study showed a 6% reduction in sodium for bread and 4% for sweet goods, indicative that the long-term trend toward sodium reduction has continued unabated. Since 1963, sodium content in bread has been lowered 29%, to 180 mg per serving from 254.
Ms. Sanders described sodium intake recommendations from the federal government in 2011 as “abundant and restrictive,” specifically mentioning inclusion of such guidelines in anti-obesity initiatives, including the Interagency Working Group’s recommendations on advertising restrictions to children and new regulations associated with the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.
“Recent public health agency calls to dramatically reduce sodium consumption from current self-selected intakes in an effort to improve health outcomes have been called into question due to an increasing number of peer-reviewed research studies,” Ms. Sanders said.
These new data raise questions as to whether sodium reduction could result in “severe and harmful unintended consequences in some populations,” she said.
In view of this research, the federal government should pause in its initiatives to cut sodium, she said.
“A.B.A. strongly requests that F.D.A. and F.S.I.S. (the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), along with other agencies proposing sodium limits, conduct a thorough review of the emerging evidence describing the potential unintended consequences of reducing sodium intake,” Ms. Sanders said. “A.B.A. also requests that the government share its conclusion and findings with the appropriate stakeholders.”
More broadly, Ms. Sanders urged the F.D.A. to broaden the review beyond the public health community.
“(The review) must engage the appropriate medical and scientific subject matter experts such as endocrinologists, nephrologists and neural physiologists,” she said. “A.B.A. believes the number of studies and the severity of the suggested implications require government consideration and intervention. Setting sweeping national policy without incorporating, analyzing and addressing significant new research would be irresponsible and is extremely concerning, especially as it could put Americans’ health at risk.”
The letter features extensive summaries of the recent studies raising questions over the wisdom of wholesale reductions in sodium intake. One of the studies was published in the November 2011 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association. In it, researchers found individuals consuming less than 3,000 mg of sodium per day “were at significantly greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease and hospitalization from congestive heart disease compared to the reference group (4,000 to 5,990 mg of sodium per day),” the A.B.A. said.
In comments about possible unintended consequences that could result from sodium reduction, the bakers expressed concern about risks both for baked foods from enriched grains and whole grains. In the case of enriched grains, Ms. Sanders said the “positive health effects of enriched grain based foods on health and disease prevention cannot be overstated.”
Specifically citing the 36% drop in neural tube birth defects since the fortification of enriched grains with folic acid was mandated in 1998, Ms. Sanders expressed concern that this gain and other health advances deriving from enrichment could be reversed.
The bakers’ concerns are as great with regard to whole wheat bread.
“Whole wheat and whole grain breads have a bitter flavor from the whole grain that consumers do not like,” she said. “Sodium and sugar are added to moderate the bitter flavor that is naturally present in the whole grain or whole wheat, resulting in improved consumer acceptance. Therefore, reducing sodium in whole grain or whole wheat breads could result in reduced consumer acceptance. Industry has no good alternatives to sodium in these products to achieve a similar result.
“A.B.A. is concerned that singling out specific ingredients or nutrients may not be in the best interest of public health.”
Each of the comments in the letter was based on a specific area of interest by the F.D.A., including one on effective methods for communicating to the public the health benefits associated with cutting sodium intake.
Ms. Sanders suggested that if history is a guide, efforts for such communications by the government may be an exercise in futility. In particular, she discussed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, implemented in 1993, obligating food companies to provide accurate Nutrition Facts panels.
“Labeling and the various iterations of the Food Guide Pyramid do not appear to have motivated changes in consumer eating behaviors, and therefore a fresh, evidence-based approach is likely warranted here,” Ms. Sanders said. “Full implementation of the ‘education’ aspect of the N.L.E.A. could be fruitful, but again, only if is grounded in evidence showing that such education will in fact result in changed consumer behavior.”