Dual studies vilify sugar and salt in U.S. diet

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 20, 2010 6:34pm EDT

French fries are shown in Hollywood, California October 3, 2007. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

French fries are shown in Hollywood, California October 3, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sugar and salt are damaging the health of Americans by raising blood pressure and cholesterol -- and regulation may be the only way to help, researchers agree.

Two reports published on Tuesday take aim at the much-loved ingredients and add to a growing body of scientific opinion that Americans won't be able to eat more healthily without help from the food industry.

Americans have been eating more and more sugar and salt in recent decades and most of it is not sprinkled on food. It is in the burgers, sodas and processed foods that are hastily gobbled by adults and children alike, the reports show.

Education efforts to help Americans cut down on salt have not worked and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should start regulating the industry to help remove it from food, a panel at the Institute of Medicine said.

Regulators and the food industry agree that Americans cannot give up salt cold-turkey and will have to be gradually weaned off it. Sodium adds flavor and texture to food to make it palatable and can extend its shelf life.

In another study Dr. Miriam Vos of Emory School of Medicine in Georgia and colleagues found that the more sugar people ate, the worse their cholesterol levels.

"Just like eating a high-fat diet can increase your levels of triglycerides and high cholesterol, eating sugar can also affect those same lipids," Vos said in a statement.

Studies have shown Americans are eating and drinking far more sugar than in years past. The use of processed sugar products like high fructose corn syrup can be linked directly to diabetes rates.

The food and restaurant industry has been lobbying for self-regulation, arguing that Americans need to control their own eating habits. But the science shows it is difficult to eat a typical American diet without consuming too much salt and sugar.

MANDATORY POLICY

The trend points in one direction: more regulation of food.

While a move to limit sugar is not imminent, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said they would push the FDA to crack down on salt, which clearly contributes to an epidemic of high blood pressure.

"What we're all hoping is this is going to be federal policy so it becomes mandatory. I think slow and steady is the right way to go," Dr. Alice Lichtenstein of the American Heart Association said in a telephone interview.

"If across the board reductions in sodium in our food supply become law, then I think a gradual, stepwise approach is probably best in the long run to ensure that it actually happens and there is acceptance from the people."

New York City, which has banned smoking and artificial trans-fats in restaurants, has pledged to coordinate a nationwide effort to reduce salt in restaurant and packaged foods by 25 percent over five years.

As for sugar, California state Senator Dean Florez introduced legislation in February to tax sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks and use the proceeds to bankroll programs to fight childhood obesity.

California has also imposed menu-labeling rules and banned trans-fats in restaurants and on soda sales in public schools.

The American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola (KO.N) and Kraft Foods KFT.N have strongly, and successfully, opposed efforts to tax soda.

However the food industry has been more amenable to offering lower-salt foods and the FDA suggests it will work with manufacturers to make the transition painless.

The Obama Administration and Congress have shown strong appetites for regulating the food and restaurant industry. Newhealthcare reform legislation requires large chain restaurants to give calorie counts on menus.

(Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; editing by Chris Wilson)