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US Agency Weighs Limits on Salt in Processed Food

High blood pressure has been called the "silent killer" because many people can have it without any symptoms. One contributing factor to high blood pressure is a diet full of salt. As VOA's Melinda Smith reports, there is growing pressure on the U.S. government to limit the salt content in commercially processed foods.

The American Medical Association [AMA] wants you to put down the salt shaker. But even if you do, salt is still in high quantities of food already prepared -- at the market and the restaurant.

Dr. Stephen Havas of the AMA makes a dramatic comparison of how many deaths are caused by too much salt in the diet. He says, "The deaths attributed to excess salt consumption represent a huge toll -- the equivalent of a jumbo jet with more than 400 adults crashing every day of the year, year after year."

Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest is one of many medical experts who want something done about it. "Salt is probably the single most harmful thing in our food, contributing to high blood pressure, which causes heart attacks and strokes," said Jacobson.

The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 17 million people die of heart disease and stroke every year. Among the main risk factors is an unhealthy diet. American medical experts say too much salt in food contributes to the death of 150,000 people in the U.S. every year.

While it is possible to limit the amount of salt in food prepared at home, it is more difficult to gauge the amount of salt in food prepared in a restaurant. A recent Science Daily article reports that Americans ate out approximately five times a week in 2006. Many of those meals were often consumed in fast food restaurants, and were high in sodium and fat.

Medical experts want limits placed on the amount of sodium in processed food, as well as warning labels on food high in salt.

But Robert Earl of the Grocery Manufacturers Association says consumers already have choices clearly spelled out for them. "This required information is -- appears -- on the labels of all of our members' packaged food products. It is useful for consumers to make food and food consumption choices."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for reviewing safety information for food ingredients and food packaging.

The agency held a hearing recently on the issue of salt [sodium chloride] limits, and after a period for further public comment, will issue a ruling. In the meantime, many doctors are advising patients to cut back on salt voluntarily.