FDA to Food Companies and Restaurants: Hold the Salt

The Food and Drug Administration is recommending the food industry make significant cuts in sodium.
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Jun 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When it comes to taking action to rein in the staggering amount of sodium in the average American diet, better late than never, right?

The Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that it was proposing what the agency calls “practical, voluntary sodium reduction targets” across the entire food industry, which would apply to both food makers and restaurants. If the industry gets on board, the FDA expects to slash the amount of sodium Americans consume by roughly a third, from the current heart-attack-inducing average of 3,400 milligrams per day that 90 percent of Americans eat to 2,300 milligrams per day by 2025.

Although a small but vocal number of medical experts have questioned whether current science supports such a substantial reduction in sodium consumption, most others agree that the evidence that too much sodium in our diets can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke is overwhelming.

In an article published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association to coincide with the FDA’s new sodium reduction targets, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls the evidence linking sodium intake with blood pressure “incontrovertible.” He notes that the vast majority of American adults—two-thirds—either have high blood pressure or are at risk for developing it, and that as the leading cause of death from heart attacks and strokes, hypertension is responsible for more than 1,000 deaths a day in the U.S.

Even as a majority of Americans say they try to watch the amount of sodium in their diet, “the deck,” as the FDA puts it, “has been stacked against them.” That’s because most of the sodium we consume—an estimated 75 percent—has already been added to the processed foods or restaurant meals that make up the majority of what we eat. It’s there well before we reach for the saltshaker.

That’s true even for brands marketed under a halo of healthy wholesomeness with labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and “gluten-free.” A cup of Amy’s Organic Quinoa, Kale & Red Lentil Soup, for example, contains 780 mg of sodium—more than two-and-a-half times the amount in a large order of McDonald’s fries. A cup of Organic Valley low-fat cottage cheese has 450 milligrams of sodium, while an Udi’s Gluten-Free Three Cheese Ravioli Skillet Meal clocks in at 1,010 milligrams—nearly half the daily intake experts recommend.

It’s no wonder that, as Frieden puts it, “although sodium reduction has been proposed as a public health strategy in the United States for more than four decades, there has been no progress reducing consumption.”

The question is, what took so darn long?

To be sure, industry opposition has played a part. Not surprisingly—but still rather shamelessly—the Salt Institute issued a statement in response to the FDA’s “war on salt” baldly accusing the agency of “malpractice” and calling the FDA’s action “inexcusable.”

It seems worth pointing out again that the agency’s targets are voluntary.

But in what has increasingly come to seem a “lead from behind” strategy on vital regulatory issues (such as, say, limiting the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry), the FDA has for decades resisted taking any action to curtail the amount of sodium in the American diet. The agency only appears to have done so now after industry leaders—including Mars, General Mills, Walmart, Campbell’s, Kraft, and Heinz—have either begun reducing the amount of sodium in their products or committed to doing so.

The public advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been goading the FDA to do something about sodium since 1978. The proposal announced by the agency, which is now open for public comment, follows a legal battle CSPI launched against the FDA back in 2005 over its inaction.

Meanwhile, as Frieden notes, across the Atlantic in the U.K., the government set voluntary sodium reduction targets in 2003. During the next eight years, sodium intake dropped 15 percent, as did deaths from heart disease and stroke—by some 40 percent.

Too bad it’s taken the U.S. so long to catch up.