An FDA campaign to curb salt consumption

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Public health researchers have been working to highlight the dangers of excessive salt consumption for decades, and in the last year alone studies have underscored just how big a salt habit Americans have: on average, we consume up to twice the recommended amount of sodium each day, significantly increasing our risk for hypertension and other health problems, and contributing to as many as 150,000 premature deaths each year and some $10 to $24 billion in health care costs. Prompted by such grim figures, last year the New York City Health Department launched the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), a campaign advocating voluntary sodium reduction of 25% in manufactured foods. Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is joining the fight to erode our sodium intake. As the Washington Post reports, the FDA is planning a large scale analysis of sodium content in manufactured foods toward an ultimate goal of establishing sodium limits for certain products. FDA officials say the initiative will span 10 years, and any changes in sodium content will be made incrementally. As one source told the Post:

“This is a 10-year program… This is not rolling off a log. We’re talking about a comprehensive phase-down of a widely used ingredient. We’re talking about embedded tastes in a whole generation of people.”

Cutting back slowly may be critical to effective implementation, as Americans have become inured to high sodium concentrations in food. More than three quarters of the sodium we consume is already in foods when we purchase them. The U.S. government currently recommends an average intake of about 6 grams of salt (which contains about 2,400 mg of sodium) per day, yet most of us are eating one and a half to two times that amount. And, looking at a sodium chart (PDF) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s not hard to see where all that sodium is sneaking into our diets—some canned soups contain more than 1,000 mg of sodium per cup, a slice of bread has between 130 to 170 mg of sodium, and sliced ham has more than 700 mg per piece. Having a soup and sandwich at lunchtime could put you well past the recommended daily amount of sodium.

Voluntary efforts to cut salt content have had some success, with Kraft recently announcing that it will trim sodium content by 10%, and PepsiCo working to develop a newly shaped sodium crystal to keep the salty flavor but cut back on total sodium content in Lay’s potato chips. Yet public health researchers laud the FDA plan, saying that voluntary initiatives won’t adequately address the problem, and expecting people to cut back on sodium themselves is nearly impossible when 77% of our sodium intake is derived from processed foods.