FDA Signals Food Industry to Voluntarily Lower Sodium Content

Pam Harrison

June 01, 2016

SILVER SPRING, MD — The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a practical, gradual, and voluntary approach to reduce sodium in processed, packaged, and prepared foods to help Americans gradually reduce their sodium intake to healthier levels, an FDA press release and conference call confirms.

"The science supporting a relationship between sodium reduction and health is clear: when sodium intake increases, blood pressure increases and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke—leading causes of death in the US," Dr Karen DeSalvo (US Department of Health and Human Services, FDA) told the press in a telephone conference.

"So the public-health impact is clear: reducing sodium intake has the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and illnesses over the next decade. Today's release by the FDA is an important public-health action," she added.

The draft guidelines released by the FDA cover approximately 150 different foods for which voluntary sodium-reduction targets have been suggested.

The guidelines have set both short- and long-term goals—2 years and 10 years, respectively—so that Americans can gradually reduce their sodium intake to no more than 3000 mg a day in 2 years and 2300 mg a day in 10 years.

These levels are recommended by leading experts and are overwhelming supported by the literature, presenters emphasized.

"This gradual reduction will not only give industry the time it needs to update products," American Heart Association (AHA) CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement, "it will also give consumers time to adjust their taste buds and better digest the changes."

Most Still Consume Too Much

As Brown notes, most Americans have been trying to lower the amount of sodium they consume for some time now but don't realize that at least 70% of the sodium they consume is in the food before it reaches the kitchen.

"Efforts to reduce sodium in the past didn't work because they placed the burden of sodium reduction almost entirely on the consumer," Dr Tom Frieden (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bethesda, MD) affirmed during the press conference.

"Changes in the food supply made gradually over time as proposed by the FDA increase the consumers' control over their sodium intake," he added.

On average, Americans consume almost 50% more sodium than what most experts recommend. Recent research reporting that low-sodium diets may be harmful to some, however, have challenged conventional wisdom that a low-salt diet is best for all.

One Size Does Not Fit All

As FDA commissioner Dr Robert Califf noted, the authors of the draft voluntary sodium reduction guidelines took a more nuanced approach to reducing sodium in prepared foods simply because in this case, one size does not fit all.

"Sodium comes from a lot of different types of foods, not just the ones we think of as being high in sodium," Califf said.

Moreover, sodium serves different functions in foods beyond taste, including texture and microbial safety, he added, so it simply can't be removed from food without carefully considering factors such as these.

"Each category of food has different draft voluntary sodium targets," Califf explained, "and the foods we have voluntary reduction targets for include many different categories of food, from bakery products to soups."

Califf also noted that about 50% of every food dollar Americans spend goes to food consumed outside the home, so voluntary sodium-reduction targets have also been set for common foods served in restaurants and food-service establishments.

In fact, within the same category of foods, there is wide variability in the levels of sodium contained in a serving. Salad dressings, for example, can contain as little as 150 mg of sodium per 100-g serving to over 2000 mg for the same 100-g serving. Wheat bread, as another example, can contain between 220 and 671 mg per 100-g serving.

"With that type of variation, it is clear we can make progress," Dr Susan Mayne (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA) suggested, adding: "We have to make sure we have the right targets, so this is the dialogue portion we will have with industry.

"But we believe that this is an important step, and the FDA put this draft target document out there to begin a dialogue with industry."

Food giants, including Mars Foods, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, and General Mills, have already been working to reduce sodium in many of their products, as the AHA's Brown points out.

For example, the National Salt Reduction Initiative has secured lower sodium commitments from approximately 30 other companies including snack manufacturers, restaurants, and fast-food companies.

"If all food manufacturers and restaurants support the FDA voluntary targets, they will be giving Americans the healthy options they need and deserve," Brown notes. "These new targets are an important step in the right direction."

Neither the FDA, CDC panel of speakers nor Brown had any relevant financial relationships.

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