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Cutting Sodium Levels continued...

Much of that research has been done since the agency last considered salt levels in food.

Lawrence Appel, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, said three studies since 2001 have linked cutting dietary sodium to a reduction in cardiovascular events like heart attack.

The latest, published last April in BMJ, showed that adults who cut their dietary sodium levels reduced their changes of a heart attack or stroke by 30%.

"This is truly a public health epidemic," Appel said of hypertension.

Appel led an Institute of Medicine panel that in 2004 urged adults to limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, the amount present in one teaspoon of table salt. But most sodium intake is from processed foods.

Voluntary Cuts in Sodium

Representatives of the food industry said companies have succeeded in voluntarily cutting unnecessary sodium out of their products. They warned that consumers were driven away from products when companies previously experimented with quickly removing salt.

"Improvement in the health of Americans is best achieved through education to modify behaviors ... rather than single policies on individual ingredients," said Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy for the Grocery Manufacturers Association -- Food Products Association.

Jacobson said that industry efforts to cut sodium have occurred but that they have been too gradual. The CSPI tracked 71 grocery store products and found that they dropped about 0.5% per year between 1984 and 2004. At that rate, Jacobson said it would take 100 years to cut average sodium intake by 50%.

Several government and private groups, including the American Medical Association, have recommended such a cut take place over the next decade.

"I don't think we have that long to wait," Jacobson said.

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