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Push to lower sodium is coming

  • Article by: Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press
  • June 17, 2014 - 8:40 PM

– Food companies and restaurants could soon face government pressure to make their foods less salty — a long-awaited federal effort to try to prevent thousands of deaths each year from heart disease and stroke.

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing voluntary guidelines asking the food industry to lower sodium levels. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said that sodium is “of huge interest and concern” to the agency.

“We believe we can make a big impact working with the industry to bring sodium levels down, because the current level of consumption really is higher than it should be for health,” she said.

It’s still unclear when FDA will release the guidelines, despite its 2013 goal to have them completed this year.

Hamburg said she expects the agency will publicly discuss the issue “relatively soon.”

The food industry has already made some reductions, and has prepared for government action since a 2010 Institute of Medicine report said companies had not made enough progress on making foods less salty. The IOM advised the government to establish maximum sodium levels for different foods, though the FDA said then that it favors a voluntary route.

Americans eat about 1 teaspoons of salt daily, about a third more than the government recommends for good health and enough to increase the risk of high blood pressure, strokes and other problems. Most of that sodium is hidden inside common processed foods and restaurant meals.

In addition to flavor, companies use sodium to increase shelf life, prevent the growth of bacteria, or improve texture and appearance. That makes it more difficult to remove.

Once the guidelines are issued, Americans won’t notice an immediate taste difference in such higher-sodium foods as pizza, pasta, bread and soups. The idea is to encourage gradual change so consumers’ taste buds can adjust.

Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said he is concerned companies may be reluctant to lower sodium in their products. If so, the FDA “should start a process of mandatory limits,” he said.

That’s what companies are worried about.

Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said the group is concerned about the FDA setting targets and any guidelines should be based on a “rigorous assessment of all available scientific evidence.”

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