FDA Nudges Restaurants, Food Manufacturers to Cut Sodium

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On Wednesday morning, the FDA issued new guidance urging food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce the amount of sodium in processed, packaged, and prepared foods by 12% over the the next 2 and a half years.

The nation is battling an epidemic of chronic diet-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD.

Americans consume over 50% more sodium than the recommended limit, said Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

“This includes our youngest and most vulnerable populations, with more than 95% of children aged 2 to 13 years old exceeding recommended limits for sodium for their age group,” which has “profound impacts” on children’s health later in life, Mayne said.

Increased sodium can also cause high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra noted.

“The guidance we’re issuing today seeks to directly address these problems head on by providing voluntary short-term sodium-reduction targets for food manufacturers, restaurants, and food service operators for 163 categories of processed packaged or prepared foods,” said Woodcock.

Voluntary sodium-reduction targets include everything from cottage cheese to sauerkraut to olives.

“By reducing sodium by just 400 milligrams per day,” from approximately 3,400 to 3,000 milligrams per day, “that would mean the average person would consume roughly 60 teaspoons less table salt every year,” Mayne said.

Limiting sodium in a person’s diet can help to prevent hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and renal disease.

While the average intake for those over age 14 would still exceed the recommended 2,300 milligrams per day, “even these modest reductions, slowly over the next few years, will substantially decrease nutrition-related diseases,” she said.

Woodcock also noted that because sodium plays a role in food safety, and because it may take time for consumers’ tastes to adjust, the agency aims to gradually reduce sodium across the food supply over time.

Roughly 70% of the sodium Americans eat comes from packaged, processed, and restaurant foods, Mayne said.

And while many Americans may want to lower their sodium intake it isn’t always easy, Woodcock said. She said that as a physician she has told patients to monitor their own salt intake by looking at labeling extensions in restaurants for nutrition information and the nutrition labels on foods such as white bread in supermarkets, choosing products with the lowest sodium content.

“I’ve tried to do this myself, and it’s hard,” Woodcock noted. “You don’t always find what you’re looking for.”

“The problem is it’s so cumulative,” she said. “Everything … the tomato sauce, the peas, the bread, the salad dressing, pretty soon your whole meal has hidden salt in it, and it’s really hard right now for people to manage that on their own.”

Asked whether there were any plans to issue mandatory guidance in the future if these voluntary measures aren’t implemented, Woodcock hedged, saying only that the FDA plans to monitor the industry.

“If we don’t see success, then we’re going to have to evaluate what else we could do, but we think this is very likely to be successful,” she said.

The American Heart Association (AHA) applauded the agency’s new guidance and urged the food industry to follow it.

“We strongly encourage the industry as a whole to adopt these targets and build upon existing efforts to reduce sodium in their products and meals,” AHA said in a statement, adding that such adoption “will be a crucial step in helping countless people across the country decrease their sodium intake.”

  • Shannon Firth has been reporting on health policy as MedPage Today’s Washington correspondent since 2014. She is also a member of the site’s Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team. Follow

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