FDA Proposes Lower Sodium Levels for Processed Foods

The proposal calls for 2-year and 10-year goals to gradually reduce Americans' salt intake. This strategy has been used in the past when it became clear that FDA would seek ways to limit sugar consumption.

Restaurants and manufacturers would be asked to gradually lower the amount of sodium in processed and commercially prepared food, under the federal government’s first-ever attempt to get Americans to eat less salt.

FDA issued a draft guidance for short-term (2 years) and long-term (10 years) voluntary targets for the food industry, with the hope of bringing the current daily average intake of 3400 mg down to the recommended level of 2300 mg. High sodium consumption is blamed for the fact that 1 in 3 Americans has high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, who is a cardiologist, said that many people may not be conscious of how much sodium they are eating until they get sick. "Our great hope is that this will initiate a very serious national dialogue," he said.

CDC estimates these new sodium targets would save 500,000 lives of the next decade, as well as $100 billion in healthcare costs.

“Many Americans want to reduce sodium in their diets, but that’s hard to do when much of it is in everyday products we buy in stores and restaurants,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. “Today’s announcement is about putting power back in the hands of consumers, so that they can better control how much salt is in the food they eat and improve their health.”

According to a statement, FDA wants to zero in on the big sodium sources—the 10% of packaged foods that account for 80% of sales. With about half of food spending on items eaten outside the home, these sources can’t be ignored. The proposed guidance covers nearly 150 product categories, from baked goods to soups.

FDA’s short-term target would get sodium levels down to 3000 mg a day, with the 10-year goal bringing intake in line with Institute of Medicine recommendations. The graduated target allows the food industry to slowly take sodium from products, which will cause less resistance from consumers. (Several big names in the industry, such as Mars and Nestle, have been cutting back sodium on their own.) The timeline also gives companies time to develop alternatives to salt for improving flavor.

Food manufacturers have successfully used this strategy with popular products that contain high amounts of added sugar, as it became clear FDA would do more to reduce sugar consumption. A new Nutrition Facts label that separates added sugar levels was released last month. The label tooks years to update, and many expect intense lobbying in the 60-day comment period on the sodium guidance.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group that has supported sodium menu labels in New York City, said today’s guidance responds to the group’s lawsuit against FDA to compel lower sodium limits. CSPI President Michael F. Jacobson said he was disappointed that the guidance is voluntary and that FDA simultaneously denied CSPI’s petition for mandatory limits.

“We hope that the industry will work cooperatively with the FDA and health experts to achieve the proposed reductions, which would benefit the health of all Americans,” Jacobson said. He said the guidance does provide goals to keep all companies accountable and helps “level the playing field” for those already voluntarily cutting out sodium.