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Experts Urge FDA to Mandate Salt Reduction

Institute of Medicine Asks for New Standards for Salt Content of Food Sold in Stores and Restaurants
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 20, 2010 -- Experts are urging the FDA to set new federal standards for the amount of salt that food manufacturers, restaurants, and food service companies are allowed to add to their products, suggesting the standards be phased in gradually so salt-loving Americans can adjust over time.

Issued today by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the new report, ''Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States," includes recommendations that are the consensus of an expert panel.

''If you look at salt intake over a number of decades, it has not gone down despite a number of efforts and it is still at a very high level," Jane E. Henney, MD, chair of the IOM's Committee on Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake and a professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati, said at a news conference about the new report.

The committee's report has a number of recommendations, but the primary one is a call for the FDA to set mandatory standards for safe levels of sodium, using their existing authority to regulate salt as a food additive.

Voluntary vs. Mandatory Salt Reduction

While health care providers and a consumer watchdog group applauded the report, industry groups did not.

The recommendation is overkill, according to Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, an industry group based in Alexandria, Va. "We would prefer voluntary effort," she tells WebMD, although experts on the side of mandatory salt reduction claim ongoing voluntary efforts have not been successful.

Roman says universal salt reduction is flawed. "We believe the whole premise, the whole idea of population-wide sodium reduction, is nonsensical. You don't have the federal government prescribe something for an entire population that may have a very small health benefit for a small population of people and may have negative consequences for a small percent of the population." Roman says. She contends that in some instances, too much salt reduction would have ill effects.

But proponents of mandatory salt reduction say lowering salt to more reasonable levels could reduce high blood pressure, improve health in other ways, and save 100,000 lives a year in the U.S.

Currently, the average American takes in more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium (equivalent to 8.5 grams or about 1.5 teaspoons of salt) a day, according to the IOM report.

That's far more than the maximum intake level of 2,300 milligrams or about 1 teaspoon established under the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And a level of 1,500 milligrams per day is termed ''adequate" by the Institute of Medicine.

Excess sodium is a major contributor to high blood pressure, according to experts. High blood pressure affects one in three U.S. adults, or about 75 million people age 20 or above, according to the FDA, and increases risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and kidney failure.

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