We're Getting the Message about Diet-Disease Links

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We're Getting the Message About Diet-Disease Links

During the last 10 years, Americans have been the targets of a growing amount of inormation about how the foods that they eat, or don't eat, may help reduce their risk of three major killer diseases--heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.

This educational outpouring is partly a result of the efforts of various federal agencies and health organizations. But the principal task of spreading the word falls on the shoulders of the mass media, says James T. Heimbach, head of the consumer research staff at FDAhs Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "The government depends heavily on the mass media to carry the message," he said.

One way of measuring the success of these efforts, and the media's impact on the dietary habits of Americans, is FDA's health and diet surveys, which are conducted every two years.


In general, says Heimbach, FDA's surveys show that many Americans do make changes in what they eat as they gain knowledge about the role that a healthy diet can play in reducing the risk of certain diseases.

The survey data show, for example, that better than 6 out of 10 Americans reported in 1986 that they had made a "majorc change in their diets during the previous two years. Although there is a stendency for some consumers participating in surveys to overstate behavior changes, Heimbach added that industry sales data seem to confirm the changes in American eating patterns.

"Sales data show declining consumption of salt, red meat, butter, whole milk, and eggs and increased consumption of such foods as fresh produce and high-fiber cereals," he said. "Our survey data show that consumers in fact give prevention of cancer or cardiovascular disease as the reason for making these changes."

One of the more widely publicized diet/health issues of the 1980s has been the link between sodium and high blood pressure (hypertension), a condition that afflicts an estimated 60 million Americans, leaving them at risk of heart disease, stroke, and other serious illness. Sodium is not the only factor in hypertension, and not everyone's blood pressure is sensitive to sodium. However, FDA felt the evidence of a sodium-hypertension link was strong enough to encourage Americans to reduce their sodium intake through an information campaign started in 1981.

Part of this effort included the adoption of a regulation, which went into effect in July 1986, requiring sodium content information on the labels of packaged foods that include other nutrition information. The regulation also allows manufacturers to voluntarily disclose the amount of sodium in a product, even when nutrition labeling is not required. (For more about FDA's sodium labeling regulation, see "New Regulation to Help Sodium-Conscious Consumers" in the May 1986 FDA Consumer.)


However, the surveys indicate that most consumers errodeously believe sodium is simply the technical term for salt. Salt, or sodium chloride, is composed of 40 percent sodium and is the most common source of sodium in most people's diets. But sodium -- often in forms other than salt -- is present in almost all foods.

In 1979, before there was a concerted effort to make people more aware of sodium, only about 12 percent of those surveyed indicated any knowledge of sodium's possible role in high blood pressure. By 1982, the number had nearly tripled, to 34 percent. The campaign's effectiveness was also evident from the responses people gave when asked what foods substances they were trying to avoid or limit. In 1978, 14 percent mentioned salt or sodium; by 1986, the number reached 44 percent.

The food industry, at the urging of FDA, started introducing products with less sodium. By 1986, 88 percent of the consumers said they had seen the new products on store shelves, and 61 percent said they had purchased them at least once. …