The Institute of Medicine has released its report on recommended strategies for reducing sodium intake to levels recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a task set forth by Congress in 2008. The non-profit organization has concluded that new government standards for the acceptable level of sodium are required in order to reduce sodium content in food.
Americans consume unhealthy amounts of sodium in their food, far exceeding public health recommendations, the report finds. Consuming too much sodium increases the risk for high blood pressure, a serious health condition that is avoidable and can lead to a variety of diseases. Analysts estimate that population-wide reductions in sodium could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually.
While numerous stakeholders have initiated voluntary efforts to reduce sodium consumption in the United States during the past 40 years, they have not succeeded. Without major change, hypertension and cardiovascular disease rates will continue to rise, and consumers will pay the price for inaction, the organization said.
The IOM report also concludes that manufacturers and restaurants need to meet these standards so that all sources in the food supply are involved. Salt is often used in packaged and restaurant foods to enhance flavor, add texture as well as thicken or preserve foods. The goal is to slowly, over time, reduce the sodium content of the food supply in a way that goes unnoticed by most consumers as individuals' taste sensors adjust to the lower levels of sodium.
The Food and Drug Administration said in a statement that in the coming weeks, it 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 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.
The FDA also said that a Washington Post report incorrectly left the impression that the FDA has already begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods.
The agency did say the effort to reduce sodium intake will require a concerted commitment, from the foodservice industry as well as consumers.
Success in reducing sodium intake will require coordinated national action, with participation of all. We are encouraged by the fact that some food manufacturers have already begun or announced their commitment to reduce sodium levels in their products.
As a consumer, you can start lowering your sodium intake today by purchasing foods low in sodium, asking your grocer to carry more low-sodium products, and asking for low-sodium options at restaurants.
Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement that the association is committed to helping Americans live healthier lives and continuing to provide healthy dining options for its customers. The association has been collaborating with restaurant food suppliers, food processors and health organizations to address the issue, such as through the recently enacted nutrition information law.
The NRA supports the IOM's recommendation of an incremental approach to decreasing sodium in the nation's food supply since successful consumer acceptance of the reduction will require a gradual change. The association also expressed concerns that any potential government mandate that creates a one-size-fits-all rule to ingredient standards or sets arbitrary per item limits that do not reflect the complexity of addressing the nation's eating habits and improving overall wellness.
"The restaurant industry has been working for some time to reduce sodium in menu items, recognizing that in many restaurants across the country, the supply chain is critical to that effort," DeFife said. "In an industry that incorporates a broad array of concepts and ethnic cuisines, tastes and expectations of food choices differ across the country and among cultures. It is important to recognize that sodium is essential to both the quality and food safety of menu items. While we support identifying options that provide lower sodium choices for customers, we cannot do so at the risk of food safety or quality issues."
Industry voluntary efforts
The foodservice industry has initiated or is participating in number of voluntary measures to reduce the amount of salt in packaged and restaurant foods. For example, quick-service chains Burger King and McDonald's have committed to the Council of Better Business Bureaus announced a self-regulatory program called the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. The quick-service brands committed to limiting their advertising to children to foods that meet nutrition standards, including lower-sodium content.
The New York City Health Department in January began a nationwide effort to encourage the voluntary reduction of the amount of salt in packaged and restaurant foods. The National Salt Reduction Initiative is a coalition of cities, states and health organizations working to help food manufacturers and restaurants reduce Americans' salt intake by 20 percent over five years.
While the IOM applauds those voluntary efforts in its report, the agency said the patchwork approach hasn't been successful and and hasn't "created the level playing field deemed critical to any successful effort to reduce the sodium content of the overall food supply.
While these efforts are laudable, they are not sustainable. The current focus on instructing consumers to select lower-sodium foods and making available reduced-sodium "niche" products cannot result in intakes consistent with public health recommendations. Without major change, hypertension and cardiovascular disease rates will continue to rise, and consumers, who have little choice, will pay the price for inaction.
In the meantime, at least one state has taken on the challenge of cutting sodium intake. In March, New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduced a bill to ban the use of salt in food preparation at restaurants.
Christa is editor of QSRweb.com and contributes to FastCasual.com and PizzaMarketplace.com. She has experience in the restaurant industry as well as 15 years as a journalist.