Summer 2006    Vol. 14, Issue1


CECHE Supports CSPI’S Advocacy For Healthy Hearts

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States. Although mortality rates for coronary heart disease and stroke have declined, some 650,000 will still die this year from these two types of CVD. Meanwhile, catheterizations, angioplasties, bypasses and other CVD-related medical procedures not only set Americans back $60 billion, but they also kill 30,000 people a year. Statins and other CVD medications cost an additional $30 billion a year.

The federal government’s response to this health crisis is disappointing. While the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a unit of the National Institutes of Health, offers strong advice about the importance of diet and exercise as a means of both preventing and treating heart disease and stroke, U.S. regulatory agencies have done little to reduce CVD rates. Equally frustrating is industry’s reluctance to proactively make its products as healthful as possible.

While numerous factors cause CVD, including genetic disposition, level of exercise and stress, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has identified three dietary elements – trans fat, saturated fat and sodium – whose reduction or elimination from the food supply offers the quickest, most affordable path to CVD prevention. In addition, the consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains should be increased to further reduce disease rates.

With CECHE support, CSPI is working with CVD experts to advocate policy changes to reduce this deadly disease, including a ban of trans fat in the American food supply and a reduction in the level of sodium in prepared and processed foods.

Trans Fat (from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil) Is Risky
Until around 1990, trans fat was considered as innocuous as other monounsaturated fats (such as those found in olive oil). Then studies demonstrated that trans fat, like saturated fat, increases the "bad" (LDL) cholesterol in blood, and, uniquely, decreases the "good" (HDL) cholesterol, both of which increase the risk of heart disease.

In a July 2002 report, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine concluded that people should consume as little trans fat as possible. In January 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated trans-fat labeling on Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the result of a 10-year effort by CSPI.

As industry now scrambles to tout “0 Trans Fat” on its products and find new oils to replace the old, CECHE supports CSPI’s efforts to press for a full ban of trans fat. Toward that end, in 2005, CSPI petitioned the FDA to limit trans fat to 2 percent of fat in foods, which is tantamount to a ban on partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. It also issued “Trans Fats – Going…Going,” a report that details the findings of its survey on trans fat amounts in popular foods, and industry efforts to replace them with more salubrious oils.

In addition, CSPI has continued to pressure the food and restaurant industries to voluntarily switch to liquid oils like canola, soy and corn, and to use as little butter, palm and coconut oil as possible. Among the notable changes, Frito-Lay has stopped using partially hydrogenated oils in most of its products; Kraft and ConAgra have reduced levels of or eliminated trans fat in their products; and many smaller companies are doing the same. Even Crisco shortening, the quintessential partially hydrogenated fat, now comes in a trans-free version. To support its mission, in 2005, CSPI also launched an interactive Web site,, a valuable resource on trans fat that features a petition drive and e-activism campaign.

Meanwhile, this year, CSPI released the results of its tests on the trans fat content in frying oils used in 20 leading hospitals and several government agencies. The results: Many cafeterias, including the one at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were frying foods in partially hydrogenated oils. Some of the hospitals and the agriculture department immediately changed their oils, and both reports have been widely quoted in the media and now stimulate discussion in key policy arenas.

Too Much Sodium Is Dangerous
Found in every U.S. kitchen, restaurant and food-production facility, salt may well be the most dangerous food ingredient of all. Eating too much salt raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Beginning 25 years ago, CSPI pressured the FDA to require better labeling of sodium. But even with labeling now on all food packages, sodium consumption remains at a dangerously high level.

The FDA’s daily recommendation for sodium intake is 2,400 milligrams (mg). Recently, the National Academy of Sciences significantly lowered that recommendation to 1,500 mg a day for people who have, or are at risk for, hypertension. Yet, according to government surveys, sodium intake rose from about 2,800 mg per day in 1980 to about 3,000 mg in 1990 to 3,300 mg in 2000. (And those surveys do not even consider what Americans consume daily via the salt shaker.)

In 2004, the director of the NHLBI, Dr. Claude Lenfant, and two colleagues estimated that halving the sodium content of restaurant and processed foods would save 150,000 lives per year. In addition, tens of thousands of individuals would avoid nonfatal but debilitating strokes and heart attacks, and millions could discard their high blood pressure pills.

To support sodium reduction, earlier this year, CSPI released “Salt – the Forgotten Killer,” a report that identifies trends in sodium consumption, underlines the high levels of sodium in processed foods and restaurant meals, and makes policy recommendations designed to reduce Americans’ sodium intake. It also released “Salt Assault,” which compares the salt content of popular processed foods, revealing that some manufacturers are loading up their products with two, three or even four times as much salt as their competitors within a food category; the report served as the basis for a major Wall Street Journal article. In addition, CSPI is attempting to persuade members of Congress to commission a study of the FDA’s and USDA’s handling of salt over the past 25 years, and to consider further regulatory or legislative action.

Future Prospects
In the coming months, CSPI will continue to press policy-makers to adopt sensible approaches to reducing sodium levels and protecting the public’s health. It will also hold press conferences and briefings to educate the public and decision makers about the harmfulness of a high-sodium diet.

Meanwhile, given sufficient funding, on a broader level, the CSPI-CECHE healthy heart project expects to enhance its CVD efforts and reach through physician networks; pressing Congress to correct governmental failures to lower sodium content in foods; investigating labeling initiatives to support consumer interests; and assessing recommended diets by the nation’s leading heart-disease prevention advocates.

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