Salt: The Latest Target

June 10, 2016
Bethany Dame, Vice President, Client Relations

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) recent release of proposed voluntary guidelines for reducing sodium content in commercially processed and prepared foods is the latest effort by the Obama administration targeting the food industry. The move on salt follows sweeping nutrition label changes and sugar reduction guidelines that have made their way through to federal standards review.

The stakeholders impacted negatively by the FDA’s sodium guidance are wide-ranging, from food retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers, to restaurant and food service providers, to consumers who prefer how their food currently tastes. Those favoring the guidelines are healthy living organizations and advocates, along with health-conscious consumers who want a greater selection of prepared food options without high levels of sodium.

For organizations on either side of this debate, ensuring like-minded stakeholders are active participants in the FDA’s comment period surrounding these guidelines is critical, and the time to do so is now.

Why sodium? The average American consumes approximately 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, which the government has long claimed is too much. The proposed guidelines outline both short- and long-term goals that aim to gradually reduce Americans’ sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day in the name of consumer health.

Yet the science on sodium is in dispute.

A 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine concluded that “studies on health outcomes are inconsistent in quality and insufficient in quantity to determine that sodium intakes below 2,300 mg/day either increase or decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, or all-cause mortality in the general U.S. population.” And, more recently, a study by the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrates that there is a safe range of 3,000-6,000 mg per day of salt consumption. Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, sums it up: “The science is uncertain. If you’re in the general population, I can’t support the widespread recommendation to reduce sodium intake without better science.”

Advocates for the FDA’s sodium guidelines argue that not taking action on salt only continues to exacerbate our country’s healthcare epidemic, citing 70 million Americans living today with hyper tension and cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. Yet these guidelines will be costly for food manufacturers, restaurants, and food service operations to implement. While it’s hard to know just how costly the sodium guidelines will be, the net costs estimated by industry groups to comply with the FDA’s sugar reduction guidelines exceeded the FDA’s cost implementation estimates by $140 million. As with sugar, these are costs that manufacturers and others may be forced to pass on to consumers, and that will be hard for consumers to swallow in addition to having to accept altered flavors and textures in their favorite foods.

In the months ahead, advocacy will play a critical role in determining the final outcome of this debate. The stakes are high—the potential impact of these proposed regulations makes it critical for advocates on both sides of the aisle to raise their voices during the FDA’s next two comment periods. The central players shouldn’t rely on a pinch of salt over their left shoulder when it comes to salt—an effective public affairs campaign will take luck out of the conversation and ensure your voice, and those of your supporters, are heard by the FDA in the next 90-150 days.


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