Sodium reduction could curb hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes
Americans are consuming about 50 percent more sodium than government guidelines recommend, putting them at increased risk of hypertension, heart attacks, and stroke. Having set short-term limits, the Food and Drug Administration could help further by setting and finalizing longer term voluntary sodium reduction targets for different categories of foods, according to a petition today filed with the agency by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nutrition and food safety watchdog group says that reducing sodium in the food supply could save tens of thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs each year.
Besides asking the FDA to create 10-year sodium reduction targets on packaged, processed, and restaurant foods as the agency initially indicated it would, CSPI is asking the agency to create an intermediate target between the 2.5- and 10-year targets. CSPI says those standards could be set by April 2025. The FDA should also publish a plan that details how industry compliance will be monitored and evaluated and create a public database of brand-name products that represent the largest contributors to sodium exposure, according to the organization.
Most of the salt Americans get doesn’t come from the saltshaker or cooking from scratch. Rather, it comes from processed and restaurant foods. Many packaged foods can approach a day’s worth of sodium (2,300 mg for adults) in a single serving. A Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup microwavable bowl has 1,550 mg of sodium. A Hungry-Man Selects Classic Fried Chicken meal contains 2,010 mg. It’s not uncommon for a single restaurant meal to provide a day’s worth of sodium or more. Denny’s All-American Slam breakfast, for instance, has 2,340 mg of sodium. At Red Lobster, the Lobster & Shrimp Tacos contain 6,620 mg, nearly three days’ worth. But sodium is widely distributed across the food supply, necessitating the all-of-diet approach encapsulated in FDA’s short-term sodium guidance and which CSPI says should be extended to longer term targets.
CSPI has been urging the FDA to reduce sodium in the food supply since 1978, when the organization first filed a petition asking for labeling of and limits on sodium in packaged foods. In 2005, after decades of inaction on the part of the FDA, CSPI re-petitioned the agency asking it to regulate salt as a food additive, and to set mandatory upper limits on its use in processed foods, a concept endorsed by the Institute of Medicine in 2010. In 2015, CSPI sued the FDA over its failure to act on the 2005 petition, which prompted the FDA to propose voluntary 2- and 10-year sodium reduction targets for processed and restaurant foods in 2016. CSPI withdrew its lawsuit at that time.
Five years later, in October 2021, FDA released final guidance for sodium reduction, including voluntary targets for 163 categories of food. But instead of producing short- and long-term sodium reduction targets, the FDA guidance only included 2.5-year targets. If achieved by industry, those short-term targets would reduce average sodium intake from about 3,400 mg to 3,000 mg per day—still not nearly enough to bring sodium intake down to the 2,300 mg the government recommends in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“As useful as the FDA’s short-term sodium reduction targets are, and as impactful they would be if adopted by food manufacturers, the agency still lacks long-term targets,” said CSPI president Dr. Peter G. Lurie. “Moreover, the agency lacks a clear long-term strategy to monitor and evaluate sodium levels in packaged or restaurant foods or even to detect if industry is failing.”
The Biden administration has endorsed the idea of long-term sodium reduction targets. Its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, released in advance of a White House conference on those topics in September, recommends “facilitating sodium reduction in the food supply by issuing longer-term, voluntary sodium targets for industry.”
“As the FDA reorganizes its food safety and nutrition functions into a new Human Foods Program, it should make sodium reduction a top priority,” Lurie said. “If you want to save tens of thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars, this is the lowest-hanging fruit.”
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