The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should set new federal standards for salt added to processed and prepared foods according to a new Institute of Medicine (IOM) report unveiled today in Washington.
IOM said FDA should modify salt's generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status and set new product by product standards.
“Regulatory action is necessary because four decades of public education campaigns about the dangers of excess salt and voluntary sodium cutting efforts by the food industry have generally failed to make a dent in Americans' intakes,” the committee that authored the report said.
According to Committee Chair Jane E. Henney, M.D., professor of medicine, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Cincinnati, IOM is recommending a step-wise reduction approach to prevent Americans from rejecting products in which sodium is reduced too dramatically, too quickly.
IOM said that Americans consume more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium — the amount in about 1.5 teaspoons of salt — each day. The recommended maximum daily intake of sodium is 2,300 milligrams per day for adults, about 1 teaspoon of salt.
“As a substance that has been added to foods throughout history, salt has been treated as 'generally recognized as safe,' and there are no regulatory limits on its use as an additive. But studies connecting high intakes of sodium to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and other debilitating and deadly conditions show that salt is safe only up to a certain amount. FDA will need to gather and assess an ample body of data to determine what limits to set on the mineral's use in processed foods and prepared meals and what the incremental decreases should be,” they wrote. The committee acknowledged that establishing the process will take significant time, staffing and funding.
Salt Institute Director of Technical and Regulatory Affairs Morton Satin said Italy has one of the highest salt consumption rates in the world and one of the lowest rates of hypertension. He expressed concern about the scientific basis for the report, but Henney said the committee's job was to recommend how to implement a salt reduction initiative – not to critique the science underlying the effort.
Satin also noted that some products by their very nature are higher in salt, like parmesan cheese, which is cured in saturated salt brine for an extended period as a part of traditional processing. Given American imports of this product – and many others like it — he cautioned that if FDA pursues federal salt limits, it may prompt on a World Trade Organization (WTO) case because such limits could constitute a non-tariff trade barrier. Henney noted that the committee was not tasked with considering the trade implications of the policies they recommended.
In response, AMI Director of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren said stated that the IOM report ignores the complexity of the issue. “It is not as easy as simply adding a few less shakes to a product,” said Booren.
According to Booren, manufacturers must carefully weigh palatability issues, safety concerns and long-established taste preferences. “It's important to produce reduced sodium products that are safe and acceptable,” she noted. “If consumers don't like the taste and texture, the salt shaker is just a reach away. And, of course, we must use extreme caution in reducing any ingredient that could potentially impact the safety of our products.”
Booren also expressed strong concern about the IOM recommendation to change salt's longstanding GRAS status, which allows an ingredient to be used in foods without seeking special permission. “Suggesting that salt should no longer have GRAS status sends conflicting information because salt helps make food safe. It also is essential to health, though it must be eaten in moderation,” she said. Booren also noted that if GRAS status were removed, the FDA would need to embark upon a lengthy and painstaking regulatory process to set individual sodium levels for thousands of food products – a process that could take years and consume valuable resources when voluntary efforts are already under way.