IN A REPORT to the Food and Drug Administration, a special scientific committee studying the safety of food additives recommends restricting the amount of salt (sodium chloride) used in processed foods.
The committee is one of a number of select committees of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) that have been reviewing the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list of substances added to food. In its report, the committee also says the total consumption of sodium, which makes up 40 percent of common table salt, should be lowered in the United States.
FASEB has made its report at a time when the scientific community is still debating not only the relationship between salt consumption and hypertension among susceptible people, but the need for the population in general to reduce salt intake.
In April, 1978, Dr. Robert Levy, director of the National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute, told The Washington Post: "We do not know that a restriction of salt intake will prevent hypertension. But the evidence we have is that prudent restriction of salt intake would not hurt so that if one can learn to live without salting foods, you are probably better off."
The other side of the argument was taken by Dr. James Hunt, professor and chairman of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. He said: "We've got a number of strongly suggestive pieces that sodium intake and hypertension are related."
While the FASEB report agrees that "the evidence that salt consumption is a major factor in causing hypertension is not conclusive," it goes on to say "available data suggest that 10 to 30 percent of the U.S. population is genetically predisposed to hypertension and is exposed to a higher risk by ingestion of sodium chloride consumption at current levels. The Select Committee believes that a reduction of sodium chloride consumption by the population will reduce the frequency of hypertension."
The per capita consumption of sodium in this country has been variously estimated at between 4 and 7 grams a day. Little of it comes from the salt shaker: most is found in processed foods. The increased consumption of processed foods, FASEB says, makes it difficult for individuals who prefer to restrict salt intake.
According to the report, man's daily requirement of sodium chloride is less than 1 gram. Authorities generally agree that humans can get all the sodium they need from what occurs naturally in foods.
The report calls for "adequate labeling of the sodium content of foods . . . ." Twice the Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require such labeling and to restrict the salt levels in processed foods. According to the Center's director, Dr. Michael Jacobson, FDA has said it would not act on either petition until the FASEB report had been submitted.
If foods were labeled with their salt content, there would be many surprises. While most people know pickles are salty (over 3,000 milligrams per large dill pickle) they usually don't know that one McDonald's apple pie has over 1,000 mg. of salt, while their quarter pounder contains almost 2,000 mg. An apple contains only 5 mg. 1/2 cup of Jell-O Instant Chocolate Pudding contains over 1,000 mg. and a cup of General Mills cornflakes contains over 700 mg. There are over 600 mg. of salt in a Hostess Twinkie and 1 cup of Del Monte green beans contains more than 2,000 mg., while 1 cup of fresh green beans contains only 12 mg.