FDA under pressure to reduce salt

April 20, 2010 1:51:25 PM PDT
The Institute Of Medicine is pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to cut the amount of salt Americans eat, by enacting regulations, because it feels the food industry hasn't done enopugh on its own.

The Food and Drug Administration says it will consider the call, but don't expect less salty soups, pizzas or pastas any time soon.

Americans eat about 1½ teaspoons of salt daily, more than double what they need for good health and high enough to increase risk of high blood pressure, strokes and other problems. Most of that sodium doesn't come from the table salt-shaker - it's hidden inside common processed foods and restaurant meals.

Even school lunches have an average of a thousand milligrams - almost a whole day's recommendation for a child.

Major food makers have started reducing sodium in recent years, but have argued that they don't have tasty ways to replace sodium for deep cuts - and they fear consumer backlash as the taste changes.

Right now, food companies can use as much salt as they want, because it is considered a "safe" ingredient.

Today, the prestigious Institute echoed earlier calls from the American Medical Association and other health groups, the IOM urged the government to set maximum sodium levels for different foods in a stepped rollback - so that eventually, the average consumption would drop by about half a teaspoon.

A gradual reduction would let people adjust to the change in flavor.

"We don't believe this is a fast project by any means," said Dr. Jane E. Henney of the University of Cincinnati, a former FDA commissioner who headed the IOM's study. "We think it's important and imperative to get started, but we think this will probably take years to accomplish."

The FDA hasn't decided whether to regulate sodium levels, but "no options are off the table," said spokeswoman Meghan Scott.

And it issued a statement saying sodium reduction wasn't a high priority right now.

The statement reads, "A story in today's Washington Post leaves a mistaken impression that the FDA has begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods. The FDA is not currently working on regulations nor have they made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.

The IOM is an independent agency chartered by Congress to advise the federal government, and is just the latest in a string of health groups to pressure the FDA in recent years to cut the salt.

The American Medical Association has said that if the salt in processed and restaurant food were cut in half over 10 years, that ultimately 150,000 lives a year could be saved.

One in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, in turn a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. And while being overweight and inactive raises blood pressure, too much salt is a big culprit as well.

Government guidelines set 2,300 milligrams of sodium as the maximum daily intake - the amount above which health problems can appear. But the IOM says people need just 1,500 mg a day, even less if they're over 50. Yet average consumption is more than 3,400 mg.

In a telephone briefing with reporters, the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest called salt, "the single greatest problem in the American diet."

Senator Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) said his own personal experience trying to cut his blood pressure by cutting his salt consumption taught him, "It's easy to be unhealthy in America. It's hard to be healthy."

The CSPI also issued its lists of the saltiest packaged foods and saltiest restaurant meals.