FDA rolls out short-term salt reduction targets for processed foods but refuses to make them compulsory
14 Oct 2021 --- The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has unveiled sodium reduction targets for a broad range of processed, packaged and prepared foods. The 2.5 year guidelines come as the average US resident consumes 50% more than the recommended limit for sodium.
The voluntary targets have received some criticism from a health watchdog arguing more should be done to raise consumer awareness about the dangers of too much salt.
An FDA spokesperson tells NutritionInsight that the agency believes voluntary guidelines – rather than compulsory ones – are the most effective and appropriate approach at this time.
This is based on the scientific and technical information currently available about the feasibility of sodium reduction across the entire breadth of the complex and diverse US food supply.
“Voluntary guidelines provide the FDA with greater flexibility to adjust these guidelines as new information from research, public discussion and monitoring of foods become available and as the food supply evolves,” they add.
Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), adds that these guidelines are important because now the restaurant and packaged food industry has clear and achievable benchmarks by which public health officials and watchdog groups can monitor the progress companies and brands make.
Further cutting on the cards
The FDA will continue discussions with food industry professionals as it monitors the sodium content of the food supply.
“In the future, we plan to issue revised, subsequent targets to further lower the sodium content incrementally and continue to help reduce sodium intake,” explain acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock and Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
“This iterative approach will help support gradual reductions in sodium levels broadly across the food supply so that consumers’ tastes adjust, health outcomes improve and no one company or category of food is singled out or scrutinized.”
Stronger restrictions needed?
While the CSPI is applauding the short-term targets, it also notes that the federal government has much more it can do to encourage the industry to adopt them.
“There is also much more it could do to educate consumers about the importance of sodium reduction,” says Lurie.
“These targets remain voluntary and, if compliance is poor, mandatory standards should be considered.”
However, the FDA spokesperson notes that voluntary approaches have been successful in other countries, such as Canada and the UK.
However, a report from the Nuffield Department of Population Health this summer revealed that the UK voluntary reformulation targets to reduce calories, fat, sugar and salt do not appear to have led to any recent significant changes in the nutritional quality of foods.
Earlier this year, researchers highlighted the UK’s national salt reduction program could prevent almost 200,000 cases of heart disease and save £1.64 billion (US$2.3 billion) in healthcare costs if better enforced by 2050.
Finalizing a ten-year plan
Another point of contention is the status of targets for a period of ten years. Currently, the FDA is not finalizing these long-term targets.
“The agency will continue its dialogue with industry, monitor and evaluate progress in achieving the short-term targets and expects to issue revised subsequent targets in a few years and continue a gradual, iterative process to reduce sodium intake,” it states.
In addition to urging the FDA to finalize these targets, Lurie also argues it should develop new intermediate 6-year targets to ensure the industry’s progress can be measured mid-way.
Spurring modest reductions
The targets in the guidance are designed to support decreasing average daily sodium intake by about 12%, from approximately 3,400 mg to 3,000 mg per day.
This could help prevent tens of thousands of fewer cases of heart disease and stroke, thus saving billions in healthcare costs.
“Although the average intake would still be above the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommended limit of 2,300 mg per day for those aged 14 and older, we know that even these modest reductions made slowly over the next few years will substantially decrease diet-related diseases,” note Woodcock and Mayne.
The targets cover 163 categories within both manufactured foods and foods prepared by commercial establishments, such as restaurants.
About 70% of the sodium consumed in the US comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant food, so successful sodium reduction depends on reducing sodium broadly and gradually across the food supply, notes the FDA.
Salt reduction has also been a hot topic at a global level, with the World Health Organization recently publishing benchmarks for sodium levels in more than 60 food categories.
By Katherine Durrell
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