Americans consume unhealthy amounts of salt, and in order to help them cut back the government needs to begin regulating sodium levels in processed food, according to a new report by the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine.
The report found that Americans consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day on average (about a teaspoon-and-a-half), or more than 150 percent of the recommended maximum daily intake of 2,300 milligrams. That excess salt increases risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
“It’s estimated that reducing sodium intake could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually and save billions of dollars,” lead author Jane Henney, a former FDA commissioner now at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine, told reporters.
Most of the extra sodium comes not from salt people add to their food, but from sodium that’s already included in processed foods. And despite decades of efforts at voluntary reduction, the levels of salt in processed food has never decreased.
So, the report recommends that the FDA begin to set maximum salt levels in processed food, under its authority to regulate which food additives are “generally recognized as safe.”
However, because salt is so ubiquitous in most food and is important to maintaining food’s flavor, the report recommends that the agency implement the reductions slowly over a period of years. Regulators would gradually step down the acceptable maximum level of salt, to give consumers’ palates a chance to get used to less salt, and also to give companies time to adjust their recipes and manufacturing processes to the change.
“In many ways, if the steps and lowering and reductions are done correctly, [consumers] will practically notice no change in their food supply,” Henney said. “But the reductions will really benefit them in the long term.”
It’s unclear what the next steps are for the FDA. Early Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that unnamed officials had said the agency planned to implement a 10-year plan to reduce salt levels. But Tuesday afternoon the FDA released a statement saying that officials were still reviewing the report and considering their options.
“A story in today’s Washington Post leaves a mistaken impression that the FDA has begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods,” the statement said. “The FDA is not currently working on regulations nor have they made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.”
Salt manufacturers, meanwhile, pushed back against the new recommendations.
“The science simply doesn’t back up these recommendations.” Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, told NPR. “There will be negative unintended consequences, including the introduction of substitutes, which consumers may find much less desirable than salt, which has been consumed safely for thousands of years.”