Group Asks FDA to Limit Salt in Processed Foods

Excess Salt in Diet Kills 150,000 Each Year, Says CSPI

November 8, 2005

After 25 years of false starts and foot-dragging the Food and Drug Administration should use its authority to set reasonable upper limits on the salt content of processed foods, according to a legal petition filed today by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The group says that excess salt in the American diet contributes to hypertension, which causes heart attacks and strokes. Hypertension experts have estimated that reducing sodium levels in the diet by half would save about 150,000 lives annually.

CSPI first urged the FDA to set salt limits in 1978. In 1982, the agency promised to act if the food industry didn’t bring down sodium levels on its own. Since then, according to CSPI, Americans’ sodium intake has increased, not decreased, and the agency has done nothing. CSPI sued the FDA to regulate salt earlier this year, but the court ruled that CSPI would need to file another petition with the agency.

“Frankly, the FDA is more interested in racing expensive new drug therapies for high blood pressure to market than it is improving Americans’ diets so they wouldn’t need the drugs,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Improving the food supply by gradually reducing the sodium content of processed foods would send a lot fewer Americans scurrying for expensive medical care. You’d think an administration ostensibly in favor of weighing costs and benefits of government action would see that.”

Despite the pleas of health experts to cut back, salt consumption has drifted upward over the past 30 years to the point where Americans are now consuming about 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day—about twice the recommended amount. According to CSPI, it’s hard not to exceed one’s daily sodium maximum if one eats processed foods or restaurant foods. Take frozen entrees. One Banquet Macaroni & Cheese dinner contains 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium; Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables range from 670 mg of sodium to 1630 mg of sodium. Some (admittedly huge) Swanson Hungry Man XXL dinners contain 3,180 to 5,410 mg of sodium, making it easy to exceed a day’s allotment at one meal.

Many restaurant meals are equally high in sodium, though diners typically don’t have any nutrition information to help guide their choices. Many Chinese entrees have more than 2,500 mg of sodium; the Lumberjack Slam breakfast at Denny’s has 4,460 mg of sodium.

An August CSPI analysis of more than 550 food items found dramatic variations in sodium content—which, the organization says, means that many companies could use less salt without affecting taste.

“Unfortunately, except for a very small number of Healthy Choice-type foods, sodium levels in everything from bread, to canned tomatoes, to salad dressings ranges from high to extremely high,” said Jacobson. “For all the food industry’s rhetoric about the wide range of consumer choices it supposedly provides, it has failed miserably at giving consumers a real choice when it comes to salt.”

According to “Salt: The Forgotten Killer,” a report issued by CSPI in February, 77 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from processed foods and restaurant foods; about 12 percent of sodium occurs naturally in foods such as dairy and seafood; and only small amounts are actually added by consumers during cooking (5 percent) or at the table (6 percent).

CSPI’s new legal filing with FDA asks that the agency treat salt as a food additive for purposes of regulation, as opposed to an ingredient the agency designates as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” or GRAS. The agency has greater authority to regulate food additives, including the authority to set upper limits or require special labeling for a given additive. CSPI asked the agency to set upper limits for salt in various categories of processed foods and to lower the Daily Value, or DV, for individuals from 2,400 mg to 1,500 mg of sodium per day. CSPI notes in its petition that several government bodies have urged Americans to reduce their salt consumption, and even FDA itself in 2005 reaffirmed its conclusion that sodium has an adverse impact on cardiovascular disease. In 2003, the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure, or JNC 7, called for a 50 percent reduction in sodium consumption—a target that CSPI urged FDA to shoot for.

CSPI’s current petition to the FDA was also sent to Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt with a cover note of support from organizations including the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association, the American College of Preventive Medicine, and the International Society on Hypertension in Blacks. Prominent physicians and researchers signing the letter include Dr. Carlos Camargo of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Steve Havas of the University of Maryland Medical School, Dr. Jeremiah Stamler of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Dr. Myron H. Weinberger of the Indiana University School of Medicine, and Dr. Jackson T. Wright of the University Hospitals of Cleveland.


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