An Imminent Government Crackdown on Salt?

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The Washington Post reported yesterday that the FDA is about to launch an initiative to get food companies to reduce the sodium in their foods.

If true, this would be a big deal. But by late afternoon, the FDA had issued a press release denying the paper's report:

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 has it made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.

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 FDA is referring to a report issued yesterday by the Institute of Medicine: "Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States." According to the IOM summary (click here for a PDF), voluntary efforts by the food industry to reduce sodium intake have failed. The report's first recommendation is for the government to set standards for the sodium content of packaged foods. And that sounds like what the Washington Post thought the FDA was about to do.

The idea is to get all companies to start reducing sodium. USA Today quotes Jane Henney, the previous FDA commissioner who chaired the IOM committee: "The best way to accomplish this is to provide companies the level playing field they need so they are able to work across the board to reduce salt in the food supply."

The IOM did a public briefing on the report this morning at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. You can listen to it via audio webcast here.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) first asked the FDA to start regulating salt in processed foods in 1978. Its press release and report, "Shaving Salt, Saving Lives," explain why the FDA's action would be such good news for public health.

Salt is as controversial as any nutrition issue can get. I expect plenty of push-back from the Salt Institute and other industry trade groups if there is any hint that the FDA might be about to regulate salt content. Could the FDA's denial be the result of industry pressure? It would be interesting to find out.

Some basic facts: Recall that sodium is 40 percent of table salt (sodium chloride). Too much raises the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Nearly 80 percent of salt is in processed and pre-prepared foods that are salted before they get to you.

The recommended maximum for adults is 2300 milligrams, or about a teaspoon a day. If you are at risk for high blood pressure, the maximum is just 1500 milligrams, or two-thirds of a teaspoon. The average American consumes more than twice that amount.

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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