They've gone after tobacco. They've gone after trans fats. Now, are federal regulators gearing up to go after salt?
Prodded by consumer health advocates and the American Medical Assn., the Food & Drug Administration is planning hearings on Nov. 29 that will reopen a long-dormant debate over whether stricter limits on salt in processed foods are needed. The move has snackmakers and food companies scrambling to fend off the prospect of rules and labeling requirements that could scare consumers and potentially take a bite out of the billions Americans spend on food each year.
Americans on average ingest 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day--about 1 1/2 teaspoons' worth, well above the recommended level of 2,300 mg. Processed foods account for 75% of that salt--and it's not all because of the shiny crystals clinging to your pretzel. Salt is used as a flavor enhancer and preservative in everything from chocolate and skim milk to canned soups.
All that hidden salt can be a killer. Too much sodium causes high blood pressure, a key cause of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. The AMA and the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest are pressing the FDA to change its hands-off stance on salt. For now, the agency says it is just gathering information. "The FDA does recognize that this is a concern," says Richard E. Bonnette, an FDA consumer safety officer. "We may need to reexamine our current policies." The two groups want it to set strict limits on sodium in foods. They also want more prominent warning labels--modeled after those on cigarette packs--stating how much salt consumers are getting and what the dangers are. "Salt is probably the single most harmful ingredient in our foods," says Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director.
Industry representatives say they've already cut way back. The average serving of frozen peas in 1963 contained 497 mg of sodium. Today it has just 95, an 81% reduction. ConAgra Foods (CAG), meanwhile, says it has removed more than 2.8 million pounds of salt from products such as its Chef Boyardee brand since 2003. And in October the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group whose members include Campbell Soup (CPB), General Mills (GIS), and Sara Lee (SLE), sat down with the CSPI to discuss ways of further trimming salt consumption. "The food industry has just as much interest in having Americans live long and healthy lives as the CSPI," says Robert Earl, the group's senior director for nutrition policy.
Consumer advocates say foodmakers' efforts aren't enough to get to the 50% cut in salt levels needed. "They deserve credit," says Jacobson. "But at the rate they're going it's going to take 100 years to get there." With the FDA stepping into the fray, the push to move faster could begin in earnest.