The Food and Drug Administration says it will consider a new call Tuesday to force food makers to gradually cut the salt hidden inside their products — but don't expect less salty soups, pizzas or pastas any time soon.
Americans eat about 1½ teaspoons of salt daily, more than double what they need for good health and high enough to increase risk of high blood pressure, strokes and other problems. Most of that sodium doesn't come from the table salt-shaker — it's hidden inside common processed foods and restaurant meals.
Major foods makers have started reducing sodium in recent years, but have argued that they don't have tasty ways to replace sodium for deep cuts — and they fear consumer backlash as the taste changes.
On Tuesday, the prestigious Institute of Medicine said the food industry hasn't done enough to voluntarily cut back. Echoing earlier calls from the American Medical Association and other health groups, the IOM urged the government to set maximum sodium levels for different foods in a stepped rollback — so that eventually, the average consumption would drop by about half a teaspoon.
A gradual reduction would let people adjust to the change in flavor.
"We don't believe this is a fast project by any means," said Dr. Jane E. Henney of the University of Cincinnati, a former FDA commissioner who headed the IOM's study. "We think it's important and imperative to get started, but we think this will probably take years to accomplish."
The FDA hasn't decided whether to regulate sodium levels, but "no options are off the table," said spokeswoman Meghan Scott.
"A lot would have to be done before any decision is made to regulate sodium levels," Scott said. But, "there is very little debate any longer over the impact sodium has."
The IOM is an independent agency chartered by Congress to advise the federal government, and is just the latest in a string of health groups to pressure the FDA in recent years to cut the salt.
The American Medical Association has said that if the salt in processed and restaurant food were cut in half over 10 years, that ultimately 150,000 lives a year could be saved.
One in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, in turn a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. And while being overweight and inactive raises blood pressure, too much salt is a big culprit as well.
Government guidelines set 2,300 milligrams of sodium as the maximum daily intake — the amount above which health problems can appear. But the IOM says people need just 1,500 mg a day, even less if they're over 50. Yet average consumption is more than 3,400 mg.