F.D.A. Kicks the Salt Habit

Apr 20, 2010
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.
Photo: TheGiantVermin&39;s Flickr photostream/CC

Salt lovers everywhere: prepare your palates. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is fixing to cut back salt levels across the board in America's food, launching a new salt limit initiative later this year. It sounds scary, but your heart will thank you. 

Once "generally recognized as safe" by the F.D.A., salt's reputation is changing—primarily because of the rising popularity of processed foods and sodium-loaded dining that's come about in the past 30 years. The average American is eating twice—twice!—the government's daily recommended limit, and 77 percent of that amount comes from processed foods.

And salt's not all good for us, despite what Morton Satin, director for technical and regulatory affairs at the Salt Institute, has to say. High salt intake is linked to hypertension and heart disease; the F.D.A. estimates that cutting salt in foods will "prevent thousands of deaths." A report from the Institute of Medicine—which advocated the cutback—supports that prediction, saying "population-wide reductions in sodium could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually."

Perhaps most important to you, dear salt lover—and to food industry execs—is that you won't taste the difference. No need to worry that everything you buy in coming years will taste like a dry sponge; salt levels will be curbed slowly over the next decade to help members of a sodium-prone generation adjust their palates accordingly. In short: your tongue will get used to it.

In recent years, the F.D.A. has urged companies to adjust salt levels on their own accord—and a few volunteered: ConAgra, Sara Lee, Kraft Foods, General Mills, and PepsiCo, which even fashioned sodium chloride crystals into a different shape in order to reduce the sodium in its Lay's potato chips by 25 percent. That's noteworthy, but it's not enough, says Michael Jacobson. Jacobson works for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the organization that first petitioned the F.D.A. to regulate sodium back in 1978. He says companies who volunteer should be applauded, but they can't be counted on to not change their minds; government regulation is necessary.

Unlike sugar, salt does not have a host of imitators, so reducing levels won't be easy. Then there are consumers, producers, and food execs to please. Nonetheless, the F.D.A. is pressing forward, involving policymakers, government officials, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put an appropriate and fair process in place. After all, what's the saying? Everything's good in moderation.  

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