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IOM Sodium Report Ignites Controversy

Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images File Photo
Workers inspect salt at the Exportadora de Sal plant in Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur in Mexico. A recent Institute of Medicine report on sodium intake seemed to contradict the latest dietary guidelines that had been issued, leading to controversy.

Controversy has swirled around a National Academies Institute of Medicine report on sodium intake since its release, prompting health advocates, as well as some of the report’s authors, to argue that it’s been misunderstood and is in line with broader efforts encouraging Americans to consume less sodium.

A key reason the report attracted so much attention when it was issued in May was because it seemed to contradict the latest dietary guidelines, which recommend that specific groups who make up about half of the U.S. population reduce their daily sodium intake to a lower threshold than other Americans. But the report’s surprising conclusions pleased salt producers, who found fault with earlier studies. Sodium is a main ingredient in table salt.

On top of that, the report is expected to be considered by the panel formulating the 2015 dietary guidelines, which had its first meeting earlier this month.

Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he thinks the report has been “very misinterpreted.” And in an article published online June 6, three members of the IOM committee that produced the report agreed.

“The recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report regarding dietary sodium has generated considerable interest and debate, as well as misinterpretation by advocates on both sides,” they wrote in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

IOM President Harvey V. Fineberg also sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius outlining what he said were the key points of the report.

The June 3 letter maintained that “some press coverage misstated” the report’s conclusions and he expressed hope that restating them “will mitigate any misunderstanding.”

The IOM is an independent, nonprofit group that provides unbiased advice as the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

At the center of the controversy is how much sodium should be consumed as part of an individual’s daily diet. American adults take in an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, as the IOM notes in its report.

The 2010 dietary guidelines recommend decreasing daily intake to below 2,300 milligrams, with further reductions for specific groups. People who are 51 and older, as well as individuals of any age who are African-American or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, are advised to reduce their consumption to 1,500 milligrams.

But the conclusions highlighted in the IOM report muddy that picture, to the concern of some health advocates but the agreement of producers.

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