FDA to Hold Hearing on Regulating Salt Content in Food

Move is in Response to CSPI Petition from 2005


WASHINGTON—For almost three decades, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit nutrition watchdog group, has been urging the Food and Drug Administration to do something—anything—to help Americans avoid high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease by reducing dietary salt consumption. CSPI first petitioned the FDA in 1978 and sued FDA in federal court for its food-dragging in 1983. Then in 2005, CSPI filed a second lawsuit against the FDA, accusing it of not making good on its Reagan-era promises to press food companies to voluntarily reduce salt content in foods. Later that year, CSPI filed another formal petition with the agency urging it to regulate salt.

On Thursday, the FDA will, at long last, hold its first public hearing on whether and how to limit or otherwise reduce the salt content in processed foods. CSPI says the hearing may represent a long-overdue recognition by the agency that it has a role to play in reducing sodium consumption. The hearing was announced last month at a historic conference cosponsored by seemingly unlikely partners: CSPI and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The American Medical Association says that 150,000 lives could be saved in the U.S. annually if salt in processed foods and restaurant foods were cut in half.

“Very few people dispute that Americans get way too much salt from processed and restaurant foods, and that that excess promotes hypertension, stroke, heart attacks, kidney failure, and early death,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “While the FDA has historically declined to challenge companies to lower high sodium levels, it is increasingly hard for FDA officials to ignore the calls to action made in recent years by the medical community.”

Though the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans limit themselves to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, half the population—African-Americans, middle-aged or elderly people, and those with preexisting hypertension—are advised to consume even less, more like 1,500 mg. Yet the average sodium intake is about twice the recommended maximum, around 4,000 mg.

Very little sodium actually comes from the salt shaker or home-cooking: Most, about 77 percent according to one small study, comes from processed and restaurant foods. CSPI’s analyses found that many restaurant dishes supply more than one or two days’ worth of sodium on a single plate, such as a Lumberjack Slam Breakfast from Denny’s (4,460 mg), a typical Reuben sandwich (3,270 mg), or an order of beef and cheese nachos with sour cream and guacamole (2,430 mg). Among processed foods, some frozen entrées are extremely high in sodium, such as the Swanson’s Hungry Man XXL Roasted Carved Turkey, with 5,410 mg of sodium, or Marie Callender’s Classic One Dish Chicken Teriyaki (2,200 mg).

As high as those numbers are, Americans get substantial sodium from many types of food not thought to be particularly salty—bread and cheese are the two biggest individual sources, contributing 10.7 and 5.5 percent, respectively. At McDonald’s, one might think that French fries are saltier than burgers, but the reverse is actually true: A large order of fries has about 330 mg of sodium; a small burger has 520.

CSPI survey conducted in 2005 shows dramatic variations in the sodium content of different brands of similar foods. For instance, Bumble Bee canned tuna has 137 percent more salt than Crown Prince Natural Solid tuna and Jamestown Hardwood bacon has 65 percent more sodium than Safeway Select’s Naturally Smoked bacon. Similarly wide ranges, as seen with everything from soups to tortilla chips to turkey breast, show that countless brands with the higher levels of sodium could easily lower the amounts substantially, according to CSPI.

International comparisons of the same products also show there’s room for improvement in many U.S. foods. For instance, an order of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets in the United States contains more than twice as much sodium as the United Kingdom version. Kellogg’s Special K has 58 percent more sodium in the United States than the United Kingdom.

In the United Kingdom and Finland, where public health agencies have made salt reduction a top priority, the food industry has responded by marketing products with less salt in those nations.

Jacobson will testify at the November 29 hearing, held at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition facility in College Park, Md., as will representatives from food companies, medical groups, and other organizations.

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