Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Food companies sign up for war on salt

LA Times article "Food companies sign up for war on salt" (May 17th, 2010) suggests that saving peoples lives by lowering their salt intake will lower healthcare costs.
The report repeated evidence that reducing sodium in American diets — from today's average of more than 3,400 milligrams to the 2,300 mg (about a teaspoon) a day recommended for most healthy people — could prevent 100,000 deaths each year
"We've had 40 years of history with this and not much success," says Jane Henney, professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati and editor of the Institute of Medicine report. "If over time we can get down to a reasonable level of sodium intake, it's going to make a real difference in terms of health outcomes, and we will see the impact in real dollars in healthcare savings."
Prolonging the life of those whose health deteriorates so severely from over-consumption of salt could easily increase total healthcare costs. If the goal is simply to reduce healthcare costs, Corrections notes that the deceased have lower healthcare costs than the living.  If healthcare cost is the dimension that this article suggests we optimize over, then we might even conclude that the government should encourage salt consumption.  If it is maximizing health outcomes, then we note we have already repeatedly discussed how this will lead to less happiness even if it leads to longer lives.

In addition, the cross price elasticity of salt with far unhealthier foods may be less than negative one, in which case an increase in the "cost" of consuming salt can greatly increase the consumption of, say sugary or fatty foods. For example, if the local deli does not sell salt and vinegar potato chips to someone because advocates in New York would prefer that he not consume such salty foods, then rather than going on a hunt for this 150 calorie treat, this consumer may reach for a 250 calorie Slurpee. Obesity may lead to far more expensive complications than high sodium intake.  The assumption that individuals will simply reduce sodium intake while keeping all other decisions constant is definitely in error.

Certainly, when debating the savings on lifestyle changes, authors should not keep "all else equal."  In the real world, small changes tend to have large repercussions.


  1. There was this, from the Devil's Dictionary:

    ADDER, n. A species of snake. So called from its habit of adding funeral outlays to the other expenses of living.

    of which I have always thought: The adder is a subtracter. Oh, the funeral is coming, don't worry about that Mr. Bierce. It is just a question of how long you have to churn out other future funerals.


  2. Human beings seek protein, salt and fat because for the last thousand centuries (and longer if one considers antecedent species) consumption of such has been a survival trait. Perhaps living in an era of abundance of food has suddenly turned eating what your body wants into a terrible thing but it is hard to see how it is so very terrible given that the average lifespan has steadily lengthened over the last couple of centuries and continues to do so. Metabolism is complex. Removing salt is not an isolated intervention in life the way that it is in a laboratory metabolism experiment because of the secondary changes it engenders - food tastes different, the subject may seek more food, eat different food, change fluid consumption, or do a hundred other things. Another way of looking at it is to consider the possibility that the interventions of busy bodies whether well intentioned or motivated by control may or may not have the intended purposes. Perhaps they should concentrate on controlling their own lifes and be good examples and should let free people run their own lives without busy bodies seeking to control them.