Institute of Medicine Recommends Quick Government Action to Reduce Salt in the Food Supply

CSPI Urges FDA and USDA to Set Limits on Salt


WASHINGTON—Legislators and public health groups today praised a long-awaited report from the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine that calls for urgent, government action to reduce salt in packaged and restaurant foods.

“Limiting salt in packaged and restaurant foods is perhaps the single most important thing that the Food and Drug Administration could do to save hundreds of thousands of lives and save billions of dollars in health-care expenses,” said Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture should quickly implement the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, starting with mandatory limits on salt, which could be phased in gradually over time.”

For more than 30 years, CSPI has been pressing the federal government to take steps to reduce salt in packaged and restaurant foods. A 2005 regulatory petition filed by CSPI asks the Food and Drug Administration to treat salt as a food additive, subject to reasonable limits. CSPI supports limits, since the high levels of salt in the American diet promote high blood pressure, which in turn promotes stroke and heart disease. Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Rosa DeLauro also joined CSPI in support of limits on salt.

“As this report points out, Americans’ salt intake has continued to increase since the early 1970s, and thus so have our taste preferences,” said DeLauro. “The problem is, we have reached a point where our sodium intake is endangering our health, and we are paying a heavy price in heart attacks, strokes, and hypertension. The public health implications of this are really astounding. According to the IOM, reducing salt intake could prevent more than 100,000 deaths a year. The FDA should set national standards for sodium content in foods.”

“Removing the barriers to healthy living leads to longer, healthier lives and lower health care costs down the road,” said Harkin. “It is difficult for Americans to control the amount of sodium they consume when dangerously high amounts are being added to processed foods. Nearly 80 percent of our daily sodium intake isn’t added at the table or during cooking—it’s added in processing plants before it ever gets to us. When sodium is so clearly linked to heart disease and strokes, it’s time to give Americans more information and better control over their daily intake. This is good common sense and it is a wise investment in our public health too.”

“As the Institute of Medicine report unambiguously points out, 40 years of voluntary initiatives on the part of manufacturers have failed to reduce salt intake,” Jacobson said. “But we call on food manufacturers and restaurant chains to step up their efforts at salt reduction while the FDA and USDA implement the IOM’s recommendations.” Jacobson noted that 20 percent of Americans’ salt intake actually comes from the meat- and poultry-containing products regulated by the USDA.

Seventy percent of the population—a group that includes the elderly, African Americans, and people with existing high blood pressure—should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, according to the federal government. Everyone else should limit themselves to 2,300 mg per day. But according to CSPI, average sodium intake is actually north of 4,000 mg per day. And some restaurant meals are capable of providing even more than that in a single meal. At Chili’s, a meal made of Buffalo Chicken Fajitas and a bowl of Black Bean Soup contain 7,770 mg of sodium—more sodium than is safe for most people to consume in five days. The Admiral’s Feast with a Caesar Salad, a Cheddar Bay Biscuit and a Light Lemonade at Red Lobster has 5,925 mg of sodium. In 2009, CSPI sued restaurant chain Denny’s to disclose sodium levels on its menus and include warnings for high sodium content. Even foods purchased at the grocery store have unsafe levels of salt, says CSPI. A Swanson Hungry Man frozen dinner of Grilled Bourbon Steak Strips in sauce with rice and green beans contains 1,990 mg of sodium. Even foods intended for children, like an Oscar Mayer Lunchables with Lean Ham and Cheddar Cracker Stackers has more than 1,000 mg of sodium—nearly an entire day’s worth for kids aged four to eight.

“Outrageously high salt levels are turning Americans hearts and brains into ticking time bombs. It’s about time for policymakers at all levels of government to bring salt levels back down to safer, more reasonable levels,” Jacobson said.

According to CSPI, intervention by the British government to reduce sodium has succeeded in bringing many packaged foods’ sodium levels below the levels of comparable foods sold in the United States. 

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