Leveling the Playing Field on Salt
It’s time to regulate the amount of salt in prepared foods, says the Institute of Medicine
Acknowledging the dangers of Americans’ salt habit, a committee appointed by the Institute of Medicine has recommended that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate the amount of salt in commercially prepared food. The committee’s report,, released on April 20, 2010 urges the FDA to work with food companies to ratchet back the amount of salt consumed by Americans, 75 percent of which comes from commercially prepared foods.
The move would not send hordes of FDA inspectors into homes across the country, watching how people use their salt cellars. Instead, the FDA would work with the food industry to set limits on the amount of salt in prepared food. Over time, the limit would become stricter, gradually reducing the amount of salt in everything from hot dogs and canned soup to breakfast cereals and baked goods. The Washington Postsources at the FDA saying that it could take ten years to phase in these changes.
Why Regulate Salt?
Salt (technically, sodium chloride) is an inexpensive agent that adds flavor to otherwise bland foods. It is also used as a preservative, binder, and stabilizer. The main problem with salt is that it is about 40 percent sodium (the other 60 percent is chloride). The human body needs a small amount of sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals. Too much sodium in the diet, and thus in the bloodstream, can increase blood pressure and damage arteries.
The average American currently consumes about 8,500 milligrams of salt each day, corresponding to about 3,400 milligrams of sodium. That’s far more than the 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day recommended for healthy individuals by the, and the for the millions of Americans over age 40 or who have high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, heart failure, and other chronic conditions. According to the Institute of Medicine report, reducing sodium intake to these targets could prevent 100,000 deaths each year, avoid 11 million cases of high blood pressure, and save the country billions of dollars each year in health-care costs.
“Involving the FDA would help create and maintain a level playing field for food companies,” says Dr. Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. Salt is such an inexpensive ingredient that, if sodium limits were voluntary, it would be easy for food companies to make products stand out by boosting their salt content compared to those who were voluntarily reducing salt. “Regulation by the FDA would make such end runs difficult and protect the responsible companies that are reducing the sodium content of their products,” says Dr. Willett.
Currently, there is no limit on the amount of sodium allowed in foods, because salt has long been considered to be “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS)—a regulatory designation called into question by 40 years of research on the hazards of eating too much salt. The IOM is not recommending that salt be removed from the GRAS list—a move that may disappoint some public health advocates, who have spent years lobbying to have salt yanked from the list. Instead, the 400-plus-page report urges the FDA to change what is considered to be a safe level of sodium in processed foods. The IOM is not recommending a ban on salt—it is, after all, an essential part of the human diet—or an overnight change. What the IOM report calls for is a gradual reduction in salt that would make the changes imperceptible to consumers’ palates.
The report urges the food industry to voluntarily speed up its efforts to reduce the amount of salt in prepared food ahead of any possible regulatory efforts by the FDA. Other key recommendations include the following:
- Updating food labels to match a Daily Value for sodium of 1,500 milligrams a day (instead of 2,300 milligrams). This would help consumers have a better idea of the level of salt in their foods—and manufacturers would have more of an incentive to cut back on the amount of salt in their products.
- Launching a nationwide campaign to help consumers change their salt-consumption habits. Industry cutbacks in salt will help lower everyone’s sodium intake, but consumers also need to step up to the plate by choosing healthful foods. Such a campaign must also aim to change the public perception that low-sodium cooking means bland food. (Read tips from the Dept. of Nutrition at HSPH and The Culinary Institute of America on the many ways that consumers, chefs, and the food industry .)
“For 40 years we have known about the relationship between sodium and the development of hypertension and other life threatening diseases, but we have had virtually no success in cutting back the salt in our diets,” said committee chair Jane E. Henney, professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Cincinnati. “This report outlines strategies that will enable all of us to effectively lower our sodium consumption to healthy levels.”
Although the recommendations come from the highly regarded Institute of Medicine—an independent, nonprofit organization that provides evidence-based information and advice to the federal government and the public on matters of diet, health, and health care—there is no guarantee that they will be put into practice. The salt industry has long resisted outside intervention and continues to argue that salt has little influence on blood pressure.
For more information on sodium and health, read
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