Less salt in foods means longer lives — Trump's administration can fix this
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No state is an island when it comes to our food and its impact — good or bad — on our population’s health.

In my home state of Tennessee, an estimated 39 percent of adults suffer from hypertension, ranking us seventh in the nation, according to the annual State of Obesity report released last fall by Trust for America’s Health, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

That’s a top 10 ranking Tennesseans would just as soon do without.

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And in my hometown of Nashville, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce also released last fall its Vital Signs report, finding: “Our region exhibits higher-than-national prevalence in chronic conditions including COPD, depression, diabetes, and hypertension.”

I along with a handful of other interested citizens have been working to change the trajectory of our city’s health and well-being through a robust community initiative called Nashville Health. There is much that can be done at the local level, but when it comes to excess salt in our foods, federal support in tackling this problem is key.

As much as we love to celebrate our home cooking and local-grown foods, we are in fact dependent on the national — in fact, international — food supply. Our grocery stores are stocked with the same national brands as any other state. The chain restaurants in Tennessee have the same menus as those in Oklahoma or Massachusetts.

That’s why it’s critically important for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to continue its efforts to reduce sodium in our packaged and restaurant foods. In June, the FDA published a draft voluntary guidance to the food industry, establishing targets for sodium reduction in two years and in 10 years.

Why is that important?

Most of the sodium we consume comes from the salt already added in the manufacturing and preparing of these foods. Excess salt in our foods increases our risk of hypertension, leading to heart attacks and strokes. Moreover, high blood pressure leads to chronic kidney disease and is often associated with diabetes and obesity.

Despite all the steps we take ourselves in Tennessee and in Nashville to address these chronic diseases, the reality is that we depend on the healthfulness of our national food supply. It is estimated that more than 75 percent of the sodium we consume comes from the processed and restaurant foods we eat.

Many companies are already taking steps to reduce the sodium in their products. Mars, Nestlé, Unilever, General Mills, and Walmart, to name just a few, have announced undertaking significant sodium reduction efforts in the past decade. But until the FDA issues its final guidance to industry on reducing sodium, there will be an uneven playing field. Leaders in the food industry will continue their efforts, but we know others are lagging behind. Since issuing its draft in June, the FDA has received hundreds of comments and is currently reviewing them. It has not announced when the guidance will be published as final.

The FDA guidance, which will be voluntary even in its final form, will provide goals for sodium reduction in more than 150 food categories and will allow companies to measure their actions against transparent and verifiable measures. Periodic monitoring and public release of data by the FDA can also provide accountability.

This is a common-sense approach that provides benchmarks from FDA but ultimately allows the marketplace to make the decisions. The new Congress and the new administration should support this approach, giving Tennessee and other states the kind of foundation they need to address the critical health problems we are facing.

William H. Frist, M.D. is a nationally recognized heart and lung transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and chairman of the executive board of the health service investment firm Cressey & Company. He is the founder and chairman of NashvilleHealth.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.