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Ex-FDA Chief Weighs In On Salt Intake

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Ex-FDA Chief Weighs In On Salt Intake

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Ex-FDA Chief Weighs In On Salt Intake

Ex-FDA Chief Weighs In On Salt Intake

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Melissa Block talks to Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the FDA and the author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, about reducing salt in processed foods.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For more on reducing salt in our diets, we turn to David Kessler. He's a former head of the FDA and has written about changing the way we eat. David Kessler says it's about time the government got more involved.

Dr. DAVID KESSLER (Former Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration; Author, "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite"): One of the things that the IOM said is that voluntary efforts by the food industry, consumer education efforts, has not worked. What's necessary is a coordinated approach. And what the IOM has called for is to slowly, over time, reduce the sodium content of the food supply in a way that you and I wont notice.

BLOCK: The idea here, as you mentioned, is that this would be a gradual step down over time of sodium consumption, and the idea is that we could sort of trick ourselves into not missing salt. How does that work? How would your taste buds respond or adjust, or is it in the brain that something changes?

Dr. KESSLER: We all think that it's just our taste buds. But those taste buds are connected to our brains. Understand - go back, go back thousands of years. Salt was originally used to preserve food. You were able to ship foods over long distance. It took the water out of foods. Then, salt started being added as a seasoning. But more recently, in processed foods, it's used to stimulate intake. So the food industry designs foods for the optimal bliss point. And we've upped the level of salt in foods dramatically over the last several decades.

BLOCK: We brought some products into the studio and I'm looking at some bags of potato chips and jars of spaghetti sauce - and here's an example: The Heart Smart spaghetti sauce now would give you 15 percent of your daily recommended allowance of sodium. The regular kind would give 20 percent, so five percent reduction. But you would say still way too much salt in this, right?

Dr. KESSLER: More salt, but what's key is what are the foods that you have in front of you?

BLOCK: Potato chips.

Dr. KESSLER: My guess...

BLOCK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KESSLER: Right. Potato chips. They're processed foods. It's not just what I'm adding to my food, that's only about a quarter of the salt in my daily diet. It's eating more processed foods. There's a part of me that thinks, yes, this initiative is very, very important on salt. But we also should understand that it's not just salt, right? The real message is to eat real foods. You want to reduce your salt intake? Eat fresh foods. That's probably the most important message.

BLOCK: You do hear this number, and it was alluded to in Patti Neighmond's story, that a hundred thousand lives could be saved if we reduce our salt consumption. Do you believe that number?

Dr. KESSLER: That's obviously an extrapolation, but I think there's very good science. If we could all cut our salt intake by just half a teaspoon per day, about a thousand milligrams of sodium, right? That would reduce the number of heart attacks by, oh, about 15 percent.

BLOCK: Explain what you mean by that, an extrapolation from what?

Dr. KESSLER: It's an extrapolation based on certain models that assume that salt intake is directly linked to blood pressure and that those blood pressure levels have predictable effects on cardiovascular disease and who will respond, so they're extrapolations. But I think that increasingly, when you look - and this is what IOM is saying - what's very important, it's not just those people who are at risk for cardiac disease, we can all benefit from reduction.

BLOCK: So it sounds like in respect to that 100,000 lives number, you're saying we should take it, so to speak, with a grain of salt?

Dr. KESSLER: Maybe - there's more science than a grain of salt that supports the importance of doing this. The amount of lives that we save, we'll be able to know that over time.

BLOCK: David Kessler is a former FDA commissioner and author of "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite."

David Kessler, thanks so much.

Dr. KESSLER: Thank you.

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