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This year will mark another push for aggressive food regulation at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On tap, salt regulations and industrywide regulations dictating which foods can be advertised on television.
In October 2011, the FDA announced in the Federal Register that it would begin accepting comments on “approaches to reducing sodium consumption.” The announcement cited 2005 medical studies’ findings that excess sodium consumption is a contributory factor in the development of hypertension. Yet studies conducted subsequent to that 2005 study came to different conclusions.
For instance, in 2006, the American Journal of Medicine published a study of 78 million Americans. It found that the more sodium people ate, the less likely they were to die from heart disease. In 2007, a study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found no association between urinary sodium levels and the risk of coronary vascular disease or death. Most recently, in 2011, researchers in the United Kingdom reviewed data from seven studies with more than 6,200 participants who reduced their salt intake. The results showed that while eating less salt did lower blood pressure, it did not reduce the risk of dying or of having heart disease.
Even the relationship between salt and hypertension has been questioned. A recent study published in the science journal Nature suggests genetics, not diet, is the major contributor to hypertension. Another study in 2011 suggested that obesity, not salt, determines an individual’s blood pressure. Clearly, the science is not settled on salt. Therefore, individuals—not government regulators—need to make decisions about their own diets.
The FDA’s call for regulation also suggests that the food industry isn’t responding to consumer demand for lower sodium food products. This simply isn’t true. From potato chips to tomato sauce, consumers can choose a variety of low-salt and even no-salt items. In other words, the market is working to meet the health needs of the American consumer.
The FDA is also interested in regulating how the food industry advertises its food products. Reducing childhood obesity is a top priority for the Obama Administration, and regulating how food is marketed to children is one method the administration feels will accomplish this goal.
In the spring of 2011, an interagency working group made up of four federal agencies (including the FDA) issued recommendations on what food products can be advertised on television during children’s programming.
Many viewed this regulation as unnecessary because food advertising during children’s programs has already declined 50 percent between 2004 and 2010. In addition, 17 of the leading food companies (which represent more than three-quarters of the products advertised to children under 12) have signed the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative pledge to only advertise healthy foods.
Despite these voluntary efforts on the part of industry, the working group developed a set of extremely stringent “nutrition principles” under which a food must fit in order to be allowed to advertise. Yet nearly every type of food a child might enjoy (even foods parents generally consider healthy) failed to meet these new guidelines. Items like milk, cheese, crackers, yogurt, bottled water, and canned soups would have been banned from television advertising.
Responding to outcry from the food industry (and consumers), Congress included a provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 requiring the working group to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of its proposed regulations. While this news was met with some relief by the food industry, the FDA will still likely pursue some form of advertising regulations on food manufacturers in 2012.
Those advocating regulations on the food industry—on specific ingredients and marketing—believe these measures will result in healthier Americans. Yet it is doubtful that they will impact anyone’s real food choices. Instead they will hike food costs as companies work to satisfy government regulators by overhauling their products.
This article first appeared on the AssurX blog.