Salt guidelines draw heavy backlash

Salt guidelines draw heavy backlash
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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is picking a food fight with an effort to reduce the amount of salt in the American diet.

The agency says a typical American eats about 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, most of which is already in the food before it is purchased at a store or restaurant, giving consumers little control over the salt they consume.

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The FDA wants to change that and is drafting voluntary guidelines that encourage food manufacturers to limit the sodium content in all of their products. 

While the guidelines would not be legally binding, they are encountering fierce resistance, with industry groups denouncing the push in comments filed to the FDA.

“Your favorite foods will not taste the same,” warned Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute. “The government is trying to change virtually every recipe in the United States.”

The North American Meat Institute accused the FDA of “vilifying” salt.

The draft FDA guidelines recommend that Americans reduce their salt consumption to 3,000 milligrams per day within two years, followed by a more substantial reduction to 2,300 milligrams over the next decade. 

Food producers fear the FDA will use the guidance to pressure them into cutting back on salt. Down the road, they worry the guidance will be turned into formal regulations, which have the force of law.

Advocates of the sodium guidelines argue they would have tremendous health benefits.

The American Heart Association says lower salt intake could help people lower their blood pressure, which in turn would reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke. The group published a study that found reducing sodium consumption by 40 percent could save as many as 500,000 lives during the next 10 years.

“For years, consumers have been warned about the link between excess sodium in the diet and high blood pressure and advised to eat less salt,” Steven Houser, president of the American Heart Association, said in comments to the FDA.

“But Americans continue to consume sodium in amounts that far exceed the recommended daily limits, in large part because the amount of sodium in the food supply remains high, and consumers are often unaware of the foods that contribute the most sodium in the American diet,” he added. 

The Salt Institute pushed back on such claims, pointing to studies that suggest salt deficiencies can cause heart failure and cardiovascular disease.

“Salt is an essential nutrient to keep the body running,” said Beth Johnson, who represents the Sodium Coalition. “We need salt. The question is how much is appropriate to maintain a healthy diet without causing problems.”

The Salt Institute claims that the human body has an “appetite for salt” that must be satisfied. According to a study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, people consume between 2,800 milligrams and 4,600 milligrams of salt each day, which puts Americans in the middle of that range.

The FDA’s plan to reduce sodium would only encourage people to eat more food to get the amount of salt the body craves, Roman said.

“It’s almost as preposterous as limiting water,” she said.  

“People are naturally-wired to get the salt they need. By lowering the sodium levels in food, you run the risk of increasing obesity.” 

Industry groups also fear that reducing salt in food could hurt their bottom line by depressing sales and shortening the shelf life of products.

“Salt is a significant factor in minimizing spoilage,” according to the National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association. 

In its comments to the FDA, the American Bakers Association noted that salt “enhances sweetness” in cakes, pies, cookies, doughnuts and other desserts.

Salt also plays an important role in the production of meats, cheese and butter, said the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which warned that consumers might reject the “inferior taste” of low-sodium products.

“Salt makes food taste better,” Lee Sanders, senior vice president at the American Bakers Association, told the FDA. “If a product doesn’t taste good, then consumers are not going to purchase it.”

The food industry points to Campbell’s Soup as a cautionary tale. In 2010, Campbell reduced sodium by up 45 percent in many of its soups, only to find that sales plummeted. A year later, the company abandoned the plan.

Campbell’s sodium reduction was too much, too fast, said the Salt Institute’s Roman.

But other food companies have had more success. 

The American Heart Association said Nestle, General Mills, PepsiCo, Kraft-Heinz, Subway and Panera have all found ways to reduce the level of sodium in their products without hurting business.

Nestle says it has reduced sodium by 10 percent in 250 products.

“Nestle has been reducing the sodium content of its products since 1998,” the company told the FDA.

Many food manufacturers are optimistic that consumers will accept more gradual sodium reductions and are asking the FDA for more time to comply with the guidelines. 

Health advocates are strongly opposed to any such delays.