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U.S. limits urged for salt in processed food

By Saundra Young, CNN
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FDA considers salt regulation
  • Standards would cover how much food manufacturers and restaurants could add
  • Manufacturers and companies should voluntarily begin reducing levels, group says
  • Adults' recommended daily intake is 2,300 milligrams: about 1 teaspoon

Washington (CNN) -- Salt, a staple in most food, could soon be regulated if the Institute of Medicine has its way.

In a new report, the institute, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is calling on the Food and Drug Administration to set national standards for salt added to processed foods and prepared meals in an effort to reduce Americans' consumption of sodium.

Salt consumption, long associated with increased risk of hypertension, heart disease and stroke, would be cut back gradually through a series of incremental reductions intended to help keep flavors consistent.

The new standards would set how much salt food manufacturers and restaurants could add to their products. The Institute of Medicine says that a ban on salt is not necessary but that regulation is, because decades of public education campaigns have failed to reduce Americans' intake.

"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 institute committee Chairwoman Jane Henney, professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio.

"This report outlines strategies that will enable all of us to effectively lower our sodium consumption to healthy levels. Lowering sodium by the food industry in a stepwise, monitored fashion will minimize changes in flavor and still provide adequate amounts of this essential nutrient that are compatible with good health."

Read about a New England Journal of Medicine study on salt intake

Food and Drug Administration officials have begun industry conversations about voluntary reduction and are encouraged by the response, the agency says. But no decision has been made to regulate salt.

An FDA spokesman said that consensus is needed to reduce Americans' daily salt intake but that officials still don't know the best path to getting there.

"Today's average sodium intake is several times what the body requires and its long-term effects are very serious," an FDA statement said. "Over the coming weeks, the FDA will more thoroughly review the recommendations of the IOM report and build plans for how the FDA can continue to work with other federal agencies, public health and consumer groups, and the food industry to support the reduction of sodium levels in the food supply."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will establish a group to review options and next steps, the FDA said.

Health and Human Services recommends that adults limit their daily salt intake to 2,300 milligrams: about 1 teaspoon. If you are over 40, are African-American or have high blood pressure, you shouldn't have more than 1,500 mg a day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 70 percent of adults fall into one or more of these three categories.

Video: Health Minute: fewer grains of salt

The average American consumes far more, however, eating about 3,900 milligrams of sodium a day. In a study last month from Stanford University, researchers found that reducing the country's salt intake by 9.5 percent could reduce nearly half a million strokes and heart attacks and save more than $32 billion in medical costs over the lifetime of adults.

More on why reducing salt intake is good

Along with mandatory national standards, the Institute of Medicine is recommending voluntary reductions by the food industry and urging government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revise and update nutrition labels.

The institute says that because the new regulations will take time to implement, food and beverage manufacturers, restaurants and food service companies should voluntarily begin reducing levels in foods.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been pressing federal officials for more than 30 years to take measures to reduce salt in packaged and restaurant foods.

"Limiting salt in packaged and restaurant foods is perhaps the single most important thing that the Food and Drug Administration could do to save hundreds of thousands of lives and save billions of dollars in health care expenses," center Executive Director Michael Jacobson said.

"As the Institute of Medicine report unambiguously points out, 40 years of voluntary initiatives on the part of manufacturers have failed to reduce salt intake. We call on food manufacturers and restaurant chains to step up their efforts at voluntary salt reduction while the FDA and USDA implement the IOM's recommendations."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association says that's something its member companies have been working on for at least a decade. The group says "silent reduction" or incremental reductions over the years is not new. A 'less is more' approach to sodium

"For years, food companies have been introducing a wide variety of new products into the marketplace containing no sodium or low sodium or with no added salt," Brian Kennedy, the association's communications director, said in a statement.

"During that time, food companies have been very successful at making incremental reductions in sodium levels in food products that maintain consumer taste preferences. The food industry is committed to continue to reduce the sodium content in thousands of products to help consumers reach the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommendation of no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day."

The Salt Institute, which represents salt producers, says that instituting a one-size-fits-all policy on sodium could hurt some consumers.

"The science simply doesn't back up these recommendations. Should the federal government regulate consumption of very low levels of salt, they are effectively compelling the entire population take part in the largest clinical trial ever carried out, without their knowledge or consent," said Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute.

"There will be negative unintended consequences, including the introduction of substitutes, which consumers may find much less desirable than salt, which has been consumed safely for thousands of years."