Are We Dumb Or Numb When It Comes To Heart Health?

Our news and trends editor advises food processors to take consumers' views on health surveys with a grain of salt.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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For the past several years the food industry has invested heavily in R&D and new technologies to lower salt/sodium in foods, and it does a stellar job considering all the challenges involved. Food technologists rely on salt to satisfy consumer preferences in color, texture, appearance and aroma.

This survey shows that we need to do a better job of educating people about the heart-health risks of overconsumption of wine, especially its possible role in increasing blood pressure.

– Dr. Gerald Fletcher, AHA

Salt brings to food far more than one of the five basic taste sensations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami); it enhances flavor, masks bitter notes, has a key role in food safety and preservation by retarding the growth of spoilage microorganisms, and regulates fluid balance in the body. 

But it seems you can't pick up a newspaper or magazine or go online without seeing an article assaulting salt in processed foods and foodservice. Packaging labels increasingly tout low-salt attributes. News reports appear daily on television announcing lower-salt initiatives by major manufacturers working to bring healthier foods to the consumer. And, with much fanfare, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were unveiled with reduced salt recommendations for heart health.

One would assume consumers besieged with all this messaging would have a clue, but you'd better take that thought with a grain of salt. Most Americans mistakenly believe sea salt is a low-sodium alternative to regular table salt. They also believe drinking wine is good for your heart but are unaware of recommended alcohol limits. Both of those findings are from a new survey of 1,000 Americans, assessing their awareness and beliefs about how salt and wine affect heart health, conducted by the Dallas-based American Heart Association.

Sixty-one percent of respondents incorrectly agreed that sea salt is a low-sodium alternative to table salt, although Kosher salt and most sea salt are chemically the same as table salt (40 percent sodium), and count the same toward total sodium consumption. Forty-six percent said table salt is the primary source of sodium in American diets, which is also incorrect. Up to 75 percent of the sodium that Americans consume is found in processed foods, such as tomato sauce, soups, condiments, canned foods and prepared mixes, according to the USDA.

Adults in general should consume no more than 2,300mg of sodium per day -- about one teaspoon, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. However, persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should limit their daily intake of sodium to only 1,500mg. Following the Dietary Guidelines recommendation, a person getting 2,300mg per day of salt per day would consume 1.85 lbs. per year, or 148 lbs. of salt over an 80-year lifespan.

Taking it a step further, the AHA recommends all Americans consume no more than 1,500mg of sodium per day, advising limiting sodium intake when buying prepared and prepackaged foods by reading the nutrition and ingredient labels. Sodium compounds are present whenever food labels include the words "soda" and "sodium," and the chemical symbol "Na."

With all the stress of trying to figure out how much salt to consume -- or not -- it's no wonder the survey found 76 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that wine can be good for your heart, yet only 30 percent of those surveyed knew the AHA's recommended limits for daily wine consumption, thereby validating the idea that ignorance is bliss. For those who seek authoritative advice, the AHA recommends drinking wine, beer and spirits in moderation -- no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women, or 8-oz. of wine for men and 4-oz. for women.

"This survey shows that we need to do a better job of educating people about the heart-health risks of overconsumption of wine, especially its possible role in increasing blood pressure," said AHA spokesman Dr. Gerald Fletcher, professor of medicine - cardiovascular diseases at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Jacksonville, Fla.

Whether one agrees with the USDA and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, the AHA or any other health "authority" about their recommendations, getting information to the consumer seems to be the problem. Even before the World Wide Web, Marshall McLuhan had it right. In 1964, he proposed the idea that the medium (print, visual or whatever was to come) is the message; that the medium is more important in messaging to the masses than the content that medium carries.

At that time, there was no Internet, e-mail or smart phone apps. Now that consumers are beseiged with information, perhaps they've learned to tune out. Then again, perhaps they are too busy tweeting on twitter (or as my son calls it, fritter) to actually investigate anything.

As for me, please don't call my cellphone; I've had enough stimulation of my grey cells today, and I need some exercise for my heart health. I'm heading out for some seasalted nuts and a glass (or two) of wine.

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