Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.com

The de Blasio administration has proposed a warning label on high-sodium menu items.

New York is going after yet another dietary bête noire: salt. This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced a plan to require warning labels for high-sodium food items on menus in chain restaurants and concession stands. Under the proposal, dishes containing more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium—the recommended total daily limit—will be denoted with a salt shaker icon. If the measure passes, New York would become the first U.S. city to adopt such a rule.

The move has de Blasio following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who banned trans fats, required calorie counts, and pushed unsuccessfully for a cap on soft-drink size during his time in the mayor’s office. Call it an autocratic crusade, nanny-state intrusion, or good public-health sense, but there’s no question that New York’s proactive stance helped nudge the FDA toward its nationwide menu-labeling rule and trans fat phase-out.

When it comes to salt, however, the underlying science is less conclusive—and the benefits of labeling more elusive.

Public-health officials have been warning against the dangers of excess sodium for decades, but debate has heated up in recent months as the federal government prepares to release a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this year. Everyone in the medical community agrees that consuming too much salt is bad for you; it’s linked to hypertension and heart disease. But there isn’t consensus on how much is too much—or how little is too little.

Experts on one side maintain that Americans are still, on average, consuming way too much salt—roughly 3,500 milligrams per day—while those on the other side say the current salt guidelines are “based on almost nothing.” The results of a large-scale 2014 study called into question the FDA’s longstanding 2,300-milligram limit on daily salt consumption, reported the Washington Post. The so-called PURE study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, confirmed that reducing salt intake can lower blood pressure, but it also found that individuals who consumed the relatively low amount of 2,300 milligrams (about a teaspoon) a day paradoxically suffered more heart attacks and strokes.

The uncertainty surrounding salt consumption is the same uncertainty that attends diet research as a whole. It all comes back to the complexity of the human body and the difficulty of isolating the effects of any one ingredient, especially in the long term. But New York’s labeling proposal is distinctive in that it gets ahead of what research is available on salt.

When the city banned trans fats in 2006, there was already a scientific consensus on the chemicals’ dangers. The same goes for calorie counts, approved that same year. As diet trends come and go, one thing remains certain: If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. Our current knowledge on salt is about that specific—which means New York is jumping the gun.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it might confuse the very populations it aims to serve.

George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, told the New York Times that it’s unclear what impact, if any, menu labeling has on consumer behavior:

“There are very few cases where social scientists have documented that giving people information has changed their behavior very much,” [Loewenstein] said. “Changing prices and changing convenience have big impact. Providing information doesn’t.”

...

He pointed out that the upper-middle-class people making menu-labeling policy often had little insight into how the lower-middle-class people whom the policy was aimed at would use the information. Just getting consumers to understand what the numbers mean is hard. Once they do, they might use them to maximize their calories per dollar, instead of reducing them.

“The people who most need the information don’t know how to use it,” he said.

De Blasio’s proposal is pretty conservative. It doesn’t restrict the use of salt; it merely warns people that a dish contains (according to the FDA) a whole day’s worth of it. That is, by any metric, a lot of salt for one meal.

New York City’s proposed salt label.

If New York wants to get serious about reducing salt consumption, however, it will have to change the behavior of restaurants. Maybe that’s through the customer first: In the best case scenario, the label makes diners steer clear of extremely salty foods—and thereby encourages restaurants to stop producing them.

Europe offers a far more radical example. Several countries, including Belgium, Greece, and the Netherlands, have enacted maximum salt levels for certain foods. In others, companies voluntarily lowered salt content in their products to qualify for state-approved low-salt logos. Finland, which launched one of the world’s first salt-reduction initiatives back in 1979, saw food companies drop high-salt products or reduce sodium content in their products after implementation, according to a report funded by the National Institutes of Health. These efforts date as far back as 1971, but a 2007 European Union framework lent additional weight to the cause, calling for a voluntary 16 percent salt reduction in member nations’ food products.

Such broad-based efforts are not likely to fly in the United States, where the mere threat of a ban on super-sized drinks provoked a “Million Big Gulp March.” But if trans-fat bans and calorie counts can serve as any indication, other cities may soon have to learn a new shorthand on their restaurant menus: the salt-shaker warning.

Top image: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.com.

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