FDA Encouraged to Sap Salt

April 21/USA TODAY -- Public health groups and nutritionists are applauding an Institute of Medicine report that calls for the government to establish new federal standards that would cut the amount of salt that manufacturers and restaurants add to foods.

The report urges the Food and Drug Administration to gradually reduce the maximum amount of salt that can be added to foods, beverages and meals.

"We applaud this report because we know the overconsumption of sodium is a leading culprit for the alarming rates of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in the U.S.," says Nancy Brown, chief executive officer of the American Heart Association.

One in three Americans have high blood pressure; an additional 20% have been diagnosed with pre-hypertension, she says. "We believe reducing sodium in the food supply in a gradual way could drastically change the eating habits of Americans, which will reduce their risk for heart disease and stroke."

Most of the sodium in people's diets comes from processed, prepared and fast foods, not from the salt shaker at the table. Americans eat an average 3,400mg of sodium a day, or about 1.5 teaspoons.

The Department of Agriculture recommends that most people consume less than 2,300mg (about 1 teaspoon) of sodium a day. Those with high blood pressure, blacks, and middle-aged and older adults should consume no more than 1,500mg.

The FDA has never set limits on the amounts allowed in foods. The new report does not suggest specific amounts but leaves it to the FDA to determine what the starting limits and incremental reductions should be.

Meghan Scott, spokeswoman for the FDA, says the agency "is not currently working on any salt regulations and has not made the decision whether it is going to do so."

The report says the food industry efforts to lower salt have fallen short, partly because companies feared losing customers who could switch to competing products with higher salt content, but a gradual reduction would let people adjust to the taste.

"We do know that there is a unique feature of taste and flavor, and it's a malleable trait, so if you are exposed to lower amounts of sodium over time, things can taste just as good to you -- your taste adjusts," says Jane Henney of the University of Cincinnati, who chaired the Institute of Medicine committee and is a former FDA commissioner. "If change is done in a gradual enough fashion, you don't notice. If it's abrupt, things taste bland."

Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian in Boston, says, "Anybody who has ever had to reduce their intake of salt to control a medical condition will tell you that as you consume less salt, you start to lose your taste for it, and foods that are too salty become distasteful.

"Reducing sodium in processed foods will be particularly helpful for children, who will grow up...accustomed to less sodium," she says.

From the April 26, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition