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The Road to Serfdom

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Conservatives have evidently worked themselves into something of an incoherent snit over the FDA’s plans to limit sodium in processed foods. If I understand the anxiety correctly, a cooperative effort between the federal government, industry representatives and public health experts to gradually (and I would imagine quite modestly) reduce sodium levels over a ten-year period is pretty much the sort of thing that Pol Pot did before depopulating the cities and having everyone gouged to death with bamboo.

As a public health matter, reducing sodium levels in the food supply seems like a perfectly decent idea and would be the most efficient way of addressing the problems caused by a diet overloaded with salt. Americans consume more sodium (by most estimates twice, by some estimates three times) than we need; most of our sodium comes from processed food; the epidemiological data demonstrate a compelling link between excessive sodium intake and unpleasant health outcomes like coronary heart disease and stroke (among other misfortunes); gradual reductions sodium intake seem to have measurable benefits for blood pressure; and the best available evidence suggests that we might reduce deaths from CHD, stroke and heart attack by tens of thousands (if not more) simply by knocking back average sodium consumption to the levels currently recommended by the CDC (i.e., 2300 mg/day for the general population). Although there’s the usual degree of uncertainty and qualification in the science, critics of the policies being mulled over by the FDA — most notably Michael Alderman, who has long been the go-to guy for salt regulation skeptics — are well-known within the field for overstating the ambiguity in the data and for undervaluing the weight of randomized clinical studies that support the public health consensus on sodium reduction. (That’s not to say he’s a hack, or that the debate about sodium is anything as nonexistent as the “debate” about climate change. Indeed, when boneheads like Ed Morrissey cite his work as “the latest research” — while completely botching his academic affiliation — it’s difficult not to take pity on the guy and wonder if he’s not being ill-served by the attention.)

in any event, there’s obviously always room for debate about the potential efficacy of public policy — but it’s probably not a debate worth having with people harboring primal fears that Barack Obama is coming to steal their Funyuns. Unfortunately, that seems to be the level at which the public discourse about food and public health usually takes place, so wingnuts should at least take heart in that.

UPDATE [SL]: In today’s installment of non-sequitur theater, William Jacobson announces that this plan to set modest limits on the amount of sodium in pre-processed foods totally vindicates his fear that isolated legislators will be able to completely ban the use of salt in restaurants. And, also, giving consumers the ability to control the amount of salt in their food is just the prelude to banning the private use of salt, or something. As a mere political scientist, I must confess that I can’t really follow the logic here.

UPDATE THE SECOND [SL]: See also.

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