The Food and Drug Administration is planning an unprecedented effort to gradually reduce the salt consumed each day by Americans, saying that less sodium in everything from soup to nuts would prevent thousands of deaths from hypertension and heart disease. The initiative, to be launched this year, would eventually lead to the first legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.
The government intends to work with the food industry and health experts to reduce sodium gradually over a period of years to adjust the American palate to a less salty diet, according to FDA sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the initiative had not been formally announced.
Officials have not determined the salt limits. In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600 billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated so that consumers barely notice the modification.
The legal limits would be open to public comment, but administration officials do not think they need additional authority from Congress.
"This is a 10-year program," one source said. "This is not rolling off a log. We're talking about a comprehensive phase-down of a widely used ingredient. We're talking about embedded tastes in a whole generation of people."
The FDA, which regulates most processed foods, would be joined in the effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry.
Alarm over huge increase in salt intake
Currently, manufacturers can use as much salt as they like in products because under federal standards, it falls into the category deemed "generally recognized as safe." Foodmakers are merely required to report the amount on nutrition labels.
But for the past 30 years, health officials have grown increasingly alarmed as salt intake has increased with the explosion in processed foods and restaurant meals. Most adults consume about twice the government's daily recommended limit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Until now, the government has pushed the food industry to voluntarily reduce salt and tried to educate consumers about the dangers of excessive sodium. But in a study to be released Wednesday, an expert panel convened by the Institute of Medicine concludes that those measures have failed. The panel will recommend that the government take action, according to sources familiar with the findings.
Although the specifics of the government's plans have not been made public, the food industry has been bracing for a federal initiative.
"We're working on it voluntarily already," said Melissa Musiker, senior manager of science policy, nutrition and health at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. In recent months, Conagra, Pepsico, Kraft Foods, General Mills, Sara Lee and others have announced that they would reduce sodium in many of their products. Pepsico has developed a new shape for sodium chloride crystals that the company hopes will allow it to reduce salt by 25 percent in its Lay's Classic potato chips.
'Disaster for the public'
Morton Satin, director for technical and regulatory affairs at the Salt Institute, which represents salt producers, said regulation "would be a disaster for the public." He said that the science regarding sodium is unclear and that consumption does not necessarily lead to health problems.
"If you consume a lot of salt, you also get rid of a lot of salt -- it doesn't mean it's an excess," he said. "I want to make sure they're basing this on everything that is in the scientific literature, so we don't end up being guinea pigs because someone thinks they're doing something good."
Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which first petitioned the FDA to regulate sodium in 1978, said voluntary efforts by industry are laudable, "but they could change their minds tomorrow. . . . Limiting sodium might be the single most important thing the FDA can to do to promote health."
In January, New York City launched a campaign against salt, urging food manufacturers and chain restaurants to voluntarily reduce sodium by 25 percent in their products nationwide over the next five years. Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and the District are among a list of cities supporting the New York initiative.
A recent study by researchers at Columbia and Stanford universities and the University of California at San Francisco found that cutting salt intake by 3 grams a day could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks, strokes and cases of heart disease.
77 percent comes from processed foods
Most salt eaten by Americans -- 77 percent -- comes from processed foods, making it difficult for consumers to limit salt to healthy levels, experts say.
"We can't just rely on the individual to do something," said Cheryl Anderson, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who served on the Institute of Medicine committee. "Food manufacturers have to reduce the amount of sodium in foods."
Reducing salt across the food supply will be a massive and technically challenging project. Although many artificial sweeteners have been discovered, there is no salt substitute.
Humans have an innate taste for salt, which is needed for some basic biological functions. But beyond flavor, salt is also used as a preservative to inhibit microbial growth; it gives texture and structure to certain foods; and it helps leaven and brown baked goods.
Gary K. Beauchamp, a psychobiologist and director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, said salt also provides another, less understood quality. "It gives something that food people refer to as 'mouthfeel,' " said Beauchamp, who also served on the Institutes of Medicine committee. "For some soups, for instance, it's not just the salty taste -- sodium makes the soup feel thicker."
Policymakers will have to decide whether to exempt inherently salty foods, such as pickles, while mandating changes in other products to reduce the overall sodium levels in the food supply.
Above all, government officials and food industry executives say, a product with reduced salt must still taste good, or it will flop in the marketplace, as evidenced by several low-sodium products that had abysmal sales.
"Historically, consumers have found low-sodium products haven't been of the quality that's expected," said Todd Abraham, senior vice president of research and nutrition for Kraft Foods. "We're all trying to maintain the delicious quality of the product but one that consumers recognize as healthier."