QUESTION: "I was surprised when I looked at a can of vegan soup recently and saw that a cup of soup had more than a quarter of the sodium I should be eating every day. Should I be concerned about this? What are food companies doing to reduce the sodium in their products?" B.B., MA
ANSWER: Yes, you should be concerned!
First of all, let's address sodium in our daily diets. According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should all be using less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (approximately 1 teaspoon of salt) a day. People with hypertension, African Americans, and those over 40 years of age should strive for less than 1,500 milligrams (2/3 teaspoon of salt) a day.
In a recent report1, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) stated that American children and adults eat at least one and a half times the amount of salt proposed for a healthy diet. Excessive sodium consumption is associated with increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. Not only is it a public health concern, it also contributes to health care costs. Reducing average sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams could eliminate nearly 11 million cases of hypertension and save approximately $18 billion in health care expenses.
As vegetarians or vegans, we tend to believe our diet is healthy. This is due in part to our plantbased diet consisting mainly of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. While we may wish for the smell of sweet potato-lentil stew simmering alongside a pot of brown jasmine rice, the reality is that we don't always have 45 minutes to spend on a meal. Convenience foods may entice us with promises of fast, delicious food. The downside is that most sodium in our diet comes from processed and prepared foods, including vegetarian or vegan ones.
What are food companies doing about "the single most harmful substance in our food?" The IOM's recent report focused on strategies to reduce sodium. They propose that the Food & Drug Administration begin regulating the amount of salt in packaged and restaurant foods. Since new regulations would take time to achieve, the IOM is urging the food industry to begin voluntarily reducing levels. Sixteen companies, including Hain Celestial (www. nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2010/nsri_ corporate_commitments_and_ comments.pdf), have volunteered to reduce the sodium in their products by 25 percent no later than 2014. Other companies that make vegan foods and offer lower sodium products are Amy's Kitchen (www.amyskitchen.com/special_ diets/sodium.php) and Health Valley (www.healthvalley.com/ products/soupschilis.php).
Besides carefully watching your sodium intake and choosing lower-sodium products, there is something else you can do. If your favorite vegan product is high in sodium and doesn't come in a reduced-sodium version, contact the company and let them know this is something you want. As a consumer, you have the upper hand; you choose where to spend your dollars and which companies are going to get your business.
1 IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2010. Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
*The response above was written by Corey Bivins, dietetics student and VRG volunteer.
QUESTION: "I just saw something on TV about not needing to eat fruits and vegetables-they don't keep you from getting cancer. Is this true" B.C., GA
ANSWER: Short answer, "No. Fruits and vegetables are foods that you need every day." Here's why.
The story that you heard was probably based on a report from European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), a large multi-country study involving close to half a million people1. In the published study, researchers stated that fruits and vegetables had a very small effect on cancer risk. This statement led to headlines like "Five Fruit and Veg a Day Won't Keep Cancer Away." Unfortunately, some news stories did not point out that the study found that people who eat more fruits and vegetables did have a lower risk of cancer—approximately 3 percent lower risk for every 200 grams (approximately 7 ounces) more fruits and vegetables eaten. That translates to a 3 percent reduction in risk just by adding a medium stalk of broccoli every day. The reduction in risk was linear. In other words, the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the lower your risk for cancer is.
These results are pretty amazing when we consider that this study looked at overall cancer risk. Many kinds of cancer, including breast cancer, do not seem to be affected in a big way by fruits and vegetables2. If these cancers are included in an analysis, they dilute the results so that it seems as if factors like fruits and vegetables only have a small impact. The effects of fruits and vegetables on the risk of specific cancers may be higher than the 3 percent overall reduction in risk seen in the EPIC study.
Besides not addressing effects of fruits and vegetables on specific cancers, this study looked at overall intake of fruits and vegetables (not including potatoes, vegetable juice, or legumes). It's certainly possible that specific fruits and vegetables (or categories of fruits and vegetables) are more important than overall fruit and vegetable intake. For example, foods like kale, carrots, and oranges are richer sources of many nutrients than iceberg lettuce.
While a 3 percent reduction in risk of cancer may sound quite small, if we look at the number of people who get cancer each year, reducing this number by 3 percent would mean that thousands of people would not get cancer. Additionally, people who eat more fruits and vegetables also have a lower risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes3-5.
So, don't let the headlines fool you. It's important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and since we don't know exactly which fruits and vegetables are best, eat a variety every day.
1 Boffetta P, Couto E, Wichmann J, et al. 2010. Fruit and vegetable intake and overall cancer risk in the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). J Natl Cancer Inst 102:529-37.
2 WCRF/AICR. 2007. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington, DC: AICR.
3 Bazzano LA, He J, Ogden LG, et al. 2002. Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of cardiovascular disease in U.S. adults: the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Epidemiologic Follow-Up Study. Am J Clin Nutr 76:93-99.
4 Rolls BJ, Ello-Martin JA, Tohill BC. 2004. What can intervention studies tell us about the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and weight management? Nutr Rev 62:1-17.
5 Ford ES, Mokdad AH. 2001. Fruit and vegetable consumption and diabetes mellitus incidence among U.S. adults. Prev Med 32:33-9.