Unhealthful News 32 – downplayed kcals, euphamized sofas, and overemphasized nacl.

(To mark the beginning of February, a few short posts for the shortest month – also I can no longer see what the serial number of today’s post is just by looking at the date so I have to take the extra time to do the calculation.  No, actually I just have a lot of other stuff I have to do this week.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released its overdue new dietary guidelines.  This was covered by all major news sources, as far as I can tell.  Sadly, the emphasis of most of the news stories was on the most dubious part of the recommendations, that everyone should cut back on salt intake.  There were some undoubtedly good recommendations buried in the rest of the recommendations, in particular to fill half your plate with vegetables (which starts to get up toward striking distance of the ideal amount) and to reduce portion sizes (e.g., many restaurant meal servings are *two people’s worth of food for a meal).

Every news source I saw that reported the story with anything other than a posting of the government’s press release found someone who was unhappy with the guidelines.  For example, Marion Nestle (American’s leading – in the sense of being accurate and useful – scientist commentator on food issues) praised the new guidelines, though this was before the news coverage came out, which I would guess she would not be too happy about.  She did complain that the guidelines focused on technical language and ingredients (SoFAS for the evil “solid fats and added sugars) and danced around telling people what they should avoid in understandable terms: “Why don’t they just say what they mean: eat less meat, sodas, snack foods?”

She knows the answer, of course, and alluded to it elsewhere.  USDA has, as its primary constituency, food companies, some of whom are heavily committed to meat, sodas, and snack foods.  Apparently the only food industry USDA was willing to cross in a big way is the salt industry.  Moreover, almost no news source offered any doubts about the anti-salt recommendations that they generally highlighted, except CNN who repeatedly mentioned the Salt Institute.

Obviously a trade group has the goal of defending its industry, but that does not mean what they write should not be taken seriously.  They point out various bits of research that suggest that cutting back salt may run contrary to goals about getting people to eat less, since saltier food can be more satisfying in smaller portions.  They also observe (I believe this was on CNN) that the proposed change is sufficiently radical that it should be considered a clinical trial on hundreds of millions of people.  That overstates it a bit – New York City’s proposed mandatory reductions in salt would definitely have been an involuntary experiment on millions of people, while this is only a trial to see what happens if there is just a recommendation (I am guessing: some people will act but not many).  But they have a point. 

No news source I saw seemed to pick up on the fact that smaller portions, more vegetables, substituting unsaturated for saturated fat, and some of the other recommendations are well tested and reflect foodways that are common in many populations, while the salt recommendations are a radical departure from modern experience, and thus we really do not know what will happen.  The bold and overly-precise claims about the public health benefits are based on a rather thin reed of research studies, and these do not seem to be reflected in ecological data (Swedes have great health outcomes and food that is so salty this chip-loving American can hardly eat it – not proof of anything, but needs to be explained).  Yet few consumers hearing the news would have any idea about this.

Why is the news so unhealthful on this point?  It is kind of a curious phenomenon.  When the health news is this one-sided about a complicated issue it is usually because it is Someone Else’s Problem.  It is considered acceptable to make one-sided attacks on nicotine, fast food, energy drinks, and other topics because most readers either do not themselves indulge in those at all or think of it as not really something they do, but just something they do occasionally.  Those who are dedicated consumers of those products say “yeah, I know it is bad, but I am going to stop”.  I suspect that few people understand the extent to which the new salt guidelines are their problem, and how unhappy they would be if they tried to conform.

From the news reporters’ perspective, it is a particularly enticing story because it fills the titillating “worry about this!” niche.  A health reporter will be able to get his day’s story once every few weeks by simply reading off the sodium content of various food items and reminding people that they still have not complied with the new guidelines.  And, like nicotine, it is easy to blame on someone other than the consumer (we have Big Salt, after all, and the much bigger makers of prepared food) and it always boosts a news story to have some dark evil so that readers/viewers are the unwitting victims.  The people who tell us what to think about our health managed to convince everyone that no one ever really liked nicotine – even convincing many people who very much like nicotine – and it is just being foisted on us by evil corporations, so maybe they will be able to keep it up with salt too. 

I guess I should be glad that I am now near the coast, in case we have to march to the sea to get our own.  Just in case when it rains anti-salt, it…. (do they still use that slogan?)  Ok, I’ll quit now, but it is worth remembering that all the lore and cliches mean that people really like the stuff.

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