WASHINGTON — America's long and dangerous love affair with salty food may be coming to an end.
After more than 40 years of failed efforts to reduce salt in processed and restaurant food voluntarily, a new report calls on the Food and Drug Administration to establish mandatory standards that gradually reduce sodium content in the nation's food supply.
The report by the Institute of Medicine recommends that the FDA, working with the food industry, limit the amount of salt that restaurants, food manufacturers and food service companies could add to their products. In a statement, the FDA said it hadn't decided whether to move on the report.
"Over the coming weeks, the FDA will more thoroughly review the recommendations of the IOM report and build plans for how the FDA can continue to work with other federal agencies, public health and consumer groups and the food industry to support the reduction of sodium levels in the food supply," the statement said. "The Department of Health and Human Services will be establishing an interagency working group on sodium at the department that will review options and next steps."
Health officials say it's a matter of life and death.
Eating too much salt can lead to hypertension, or high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, kidney failure and stroke. One in three U.S. adults — nearly 75 million people 20 or older — suffer from hypertension, and another 50 million adults suffer from pre-hypertension.
"The vast majority of the U.S. population is consuming sodium at levels that are simply too high to be safe," said Jane E. Henney, a professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati and the chair of the Institute of Medicine committee that authored the report. " This is an urgent public health problem."
About 88 percent of the U.S population age 2 and older consumes more sodium each day than is recommended. On average, Americans ingest about 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, or about 1.5 teaspoons of salt. Experts have said they should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams, or 1 teaspoon a day. People older than 50 should ingest even less.
However, lowering daily sodium intake even further, to 1,500 milligrams, would prevent more than 100,000 deaths a year and save billions in medical costs, Henney said.
The new recommendations would reduce sodium content and consumption incrementally without sacrificing flavor that consumers love. If it's done correctly over the course of several years, most people won't even notice the change in their diets, Henney said.
Under the Institute of Medicine plan, acceptable sodium levels set by the FDA would vary by food groups such as meats, breads and grains, beverages, soups and condiments.
Since most dietary salt is consumed through prepared meals and processed or packaged foods, the recommendations are directed at food manufacturers and food-preparation industries.
The report calls for increasing FDA staff and funding to implement the changes and monitor compliance with the new initiative.
"The committee recommends that the FDA expeditiously begin the process of gathering information and initiating" action on the proposal, Henney said.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the world's leading food and beverage companies, applauded the proposal and said the food industry had been working for several years to reduce sodium in products and provide consumers with healthier food choices. In a statement, the group said, "We look forward to working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop a national sodium reduction strategy that will help consumers."
The National Restaurant Association praised the proposal's incremental approach, saying consumers would suffer if drastic recipe changes were mandated quickly. "Without customer acceptance, there will be no measurable change in consumer behavior," said Scott DeFife, the association's executive vice president.
Lori Roman, the president of the Salt Institute, which represents salt producers, bashed the proposal, however, saying it ignored the medical benefits of salt for some people. Roman said the FDA should conduct clinical trials before implementing the plan.
"They're talking about limiting sodium for an entire population and there's no clinical evidence to support that, and they have refused to do randomized clinical trials to get the support and scientific evidence they would need to take such drastic measures," Roman said.
The Institute of Medicine plan would modify salt's status with the FDA as "generally recognized as safe" at any level of use. The agency would set maximum sodium levels that — if exceeded — no longer would meet the "generally recognized as safe" standard.
The report calls on the food industry to reduce salt voluntarily in its products in advance of the new standards. It also advises the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revise nutritional product labeling for sodium to reflect lower suggested levels of consumption.
This includes a recommendation to change the Daily Value for sodium on food packaging, which tells consumers how much of their recommended daily intake of sodium is contained in a serving. Currently, the maximum amount of sodium that should be consumed daily is 2,400 milligrams. The committee recommends that be changed to 1,500 milligrams.
Henney said no timetable had been set for implementing the changes, and that it would take years to carry out fully.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010