Local Government Can Be Big Too, Especially on Your Dinner Plate


What’s with the Assault on Salt?

Issues : Activists have proposed various forms of regulation on salt, justifying them only with hyperbole.

  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s executive director, Michael Jacobson has declared that “high sodium content is the single greatest problem in the American diet….What’s really needed is a government initiative.” Jacobson has also declared that salt is the “single most dangerous ingredient in the food supply.”
  • CSPI filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the restaurant chain Denny’s over the salt content of its dishes – a lawsuit that a New Jersey appellate court dismissed. CSPI filed a bogus lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to force the agency to systematically reduce salt in packaged food. And it has called for another bureaucracy –  “a new FDA Division of Salt Reduction.”
  • The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene called for restaurants to reduce the salt content of dishes by 25 percent by 2015. New York City’s former health commissioner has called for an “industry-wide response and preferably a national response” in dealing with the common use of salt.
  • New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduced legislation in 2010 that would prohibit restaurants from using salt in food preparation and would create steep fines for violations.
  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went so far as to hysterically compare the overuse of salt to health hazards posed by asbestos. “Modern medicine thinks you shouldn’t be eating salt, or sodium,” declared “Hizzoner.”
  • Dietician James J. Kenney has said that “Worldwide, added salt almost certainly is killing more people than AIDS, malaria, terrorism, obesity, high cholesterol and tobacco.” And has asked, “Yes, we like the taste of salt, but is it to die for?”

What does the research say? Studies and reports have shown that salt is a safe preservative and does not sync with its critics’ alarmism.

  • As the New York Sun reported, “medical experts believe harm can be done by salt-restricting diets. In fact, “sodium is considered to be an essential mineral, necessary for helping the body absorb major nutrients.”
  • A University of California study released in 2009 found that our bodies naturally regulate our sodium intake, ensuring that sodium levels remain within a certain range at all times.
  • A meta-study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal found, “It is unclear what effects a low sodium diet has on cardiovascular events and mortality.” Indeed, other studies have even shown deadly consequences of salt restriction.
  • Another study published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension concluded: “[F]ew data link sodium intake to health outcomes, and that which is available is inconsistent. Without knowledge of the sum of the multiple effects of reduced sodium diet, no single universal prescription for sodium intake can be scientifically justified.”
  • In the International Journal of Epidemiology, a former president of the American Society of Hypertension stated: “existing evidence provides no support for the highly unlikely proposition that a single dietary sodium intake is an appropriate or desirable goal for the entire population.”

What does this mean for me? Regulating salt consumption is a shallow and narrow effort to find a one-sized fits all explanation for unhealthy lifestyles.

  • Salt has been consumed as an essential mineral for approximately 4,700 years.
  • There’s no scientific consensus (let alone concrete evidence) of an iron-clad relationship between salt intake and hypertension. In fact, the blood pressures of only a small minority of people—tagged as “salt-sensitive”—respond to changes in dietary sodium.
  • Even at high intakes there’s no direct evidence (nothing like the proof against cigarettes) that sodium causes disease. Multiple studies have shown no increased risk of death from consuming levels of sodium consistent with current American diets in people who are not salt-sensitive compared with sodium-restricted diets.
  • Sanford Miller, a former Food and Drug Administration staffer, said that the salt controversy is the “number one perfect example of why science is a destabilizing force in public policy.”

Not in My Backyard! Zoning Restaurants Out of Business

Zoning legislation seeks to restrict where certain restaurants can operate. They are justified by proponents as obesity-fighting laws.

  • New York City health czar Tom Farley has said, “There is no reason we can’t, through zoning and planning, regulate the location, density, or hours of junk-food outlets, especially around schools.”
  • Nutrition activist Kelly Brownell insists that “counting on parents” to take responsibility for their children’s diets “is a failed experiment.” One of his many anti-consumer choice “solutions”? “Zoning laws could prohibit the operation of businesses selling food within a certain distance of schools.”
  • Contra Costa (California) County supervisor Mark DeSaulnier proposed that the county study ways to restrict the number of fast-food restaurants, justifying zoning as a weapon against obesity.
  • San Diego’s Board of Supervisors drafted “strategies” for combating childhood obesity which included “ordinances restricting mobile junk food vendors from areas frequented by children and youth. … Enact strict City and County zoning laws addressing the number of, construction of and conversion of fast food outlets and drive throughs, especially those around schools.”
  • In 2008, the Los Angeles City Council approved a one-year moratorium on new fast food restaurants in south Los Angeles. That moratorium on new fast food establishments was made permanent in late 2010.
  • Riverbank, California has considered legislation that would prohibit fast-food restaurants “within 500 feet of schools and parks. Fast food restaurants wouldn’t be allowed to serve food with trans fats or use Styrofoam containers. The restaurants also would have to follow design guidelines to make them more pedestrian-friendly and visually appealing. Drive-through windows would be discouraged.”

What does the research say? Because food zoning for health reasons is a relatively new phenomenon, there has been limited research on the subject. But initial evidence suggests it is utterly ineffective in combating obesity.

  • A 2009 RAND Corporation study determined that the Los Angeles fast food zoning ban was based on questionable premises. Wealthier areas of town had a higher concentration of fast-food restaurants than the poorer sections of Los Angeles. The actual data, the study says, disagreed with “media reports about an over-concentration of fast-food establishments” in South Los Angeles.
  • A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2005 found “no relationship between availability of eating places and prevalence of obesity.”
  • Arguments that these zoning regulations help the poor most are also dubious: A study by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that middle class people tend to consume more fast food than the poor. Middle class people are less likely than the poor to be overweight or obese.

What’s the bottom line? Zoning laws are a misguided political effort to control obesity. It ignores the complicated and symptomatic causes that of obesity.

  • Zoning restrictions on restaurants, like taxation and litigation, are just another example of a broad agenda to restrict what Americans eat and drink.
  • All restrictions have unintended consequences. By limiting competition, banning certain restaurants may turn out to adversely affect the poor by taking away food choices.
  • Zoning laws miss the real obesity culprit: physical inactivity, which has seen a dramatic decline in the last few decades. Even an infamous food cop has lamented that “we’ve engineered the last physical activity out of our life.” Inactivity, with or without menu labeling, is still inactivity.
  • A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that regardless of body weight, those who are physically active live longer than those who aren’t.