FDA issues voluntary guidelines in effort to reduce sodium consumption

Claudia Fleming adds a touch of salt to finish off mixing salted caramel at the North Fork Table & Inn on Oct 25, 2019, in Southold, NY The Food and Drug Administration, citing an epidemic of diet-related illnesses, released new guidelines on Wednesday, Oct 13, 2021, aimed at reducing the amount of sodium that Americans consume at restaurants, school cafeterias and food trucks, or when they are eating packaged and prepared foods at home. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)
The Food and Drug Administration, citing an epidemic of diet-related illnesses, released new guidelines Wednesday aimed at reducing the amount of sodium that Americans consume at restaurants, school cafeterias and food trucks, or when they are eating packaged and prepared foods at home.

The recommendations, issued after years of delay, seek to reduce the average daily sodium intake by 12 percent over the next 2 1/2 years by encouraging food manufacturers, restaurants and food service companies to scale back their use of salt. That goal translates into 3,000 milligrams of salt — about a teaspoon — compared to the 3,400 milligrams that Americans typically consume in a day.

America’s love affair with salty foods has been linked to alarmingly high rates of high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. More than 4 in 10 American adults have high blood pressure; among Black adults, that number is 6 in 10, the FDA said.

Much of that excess sodium, about 70 percent, comes from processed and packaged food and meals served at restaurants, according to researchers.

In a statement announcing the new guidelines, Dr Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA commissioner, said they were the first step in a multiyear campaign to gradually lower the nation’s sodium intake so it more closely aligns with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggest a healthy diet should contain no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.

Lowering sodium intake by about 40% over a decade, the FDA said, could save 500,000 lives.

While nutritionists and public health experts commended the FDA for taking on the problem, many said that voluntary measures were unlikely to move the needle very much. Some experts have suggested mandatory limits on sodium, although they acknowledge that the food industry’s formidable power makes such measures unlikely at the federal level.

In a statement, the American Heart Association said the recommendations were an important step in lowering sodium intake but urged the FDA to lower its daily target to 2,300 milligrams.

Michael Jacobson, a longtime advocate for healthier diets and author of the book “Salt Wars: The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet,” said he was pleased the FDA had finally acted — five years after the agency issued its draft guidance. But he lamented that four decades had passed since an FDA advisory committee first warned about the dangers of excess salt consumption and recommended that steps be taken to reduce its prominence in the American diet.

“It’s just been very sad to see the government be so lackadaisical about such a serious health problem,” he said.

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