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Restaurants: How Big a Contribution to Salty Diets?

According to the report, processed foods and restaurant foods contribute almost 80% of sodium to the diet. Thousands of processed foods, such as frozen dinners and soups, contain between 500 and 1,000 mg of sodium per serving.

"Considering the ubiquity of salt-laden foods, it's virtually impossible to consume [the recommended amount in a] diet," he says.

Many companies sell prepared food brands with lowered sodium levels, which are often more expensive than regular varieties.

The group issued a report highlighting dozens of foods it says are contributing to overconsumption of salt. For example, a single package of popular Maruchan Ramen Noodles contains 1,400 mg of sodium, more than half the recommended level for younger adults. The report also singles out restaurants, which it says rarely provide nutrition information on menus but use high levels of salt to flavor foods.

"Clearly most companies have not been making an effort, certainly restaurants have not been making an effort," Jacobson says.

Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Food Products Association, a lobbying group for the processed food industry, says in an interview that his industry has gradually cut sodium levels over time, even in traditionally high-salt foods such as pretzels and potato chips.

He also says that grocery store packages alert consumers to sodium content and that increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is a widely known method of cutting sodium consumption.

"The [U.S.] dietary guidelines recommend a food pattern that if Americans were motivated to follow it would reduce their sodium," he says.

Case in Court

CSPI filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court, urging a judge to order the FDA to determine whether salt is a safe food additive. The group alleges that the FDA pledged in 1984 to issue conclusions on salt's safety but never completed the review.

Jacobson said that "not a single" FDA scientist is dedicated to reviewing sodium levels in the U.S. food supply, despite the mineral's probable contribution to heart disease and strokes.

"Without the court's intervention, the FDA will almost certainly continue to delay. Because the millions of Americans at risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease are paying for the FDA's delay with their health, the court should compel FDA to take prompt action," the complaint states.

The FDA "is currently evaluating CSPI's report on salt, including the recommendations," says FDA spokeswoman Kathleen Quinn. She declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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