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salt cellar

US: FDA issues guidelines for salt reduction

A fight at the dining table is escalating between US regulators and the food industry, this time over the FDA’s new proposals to cut Americans’ average salt intake by almost one-third.

The FDA last week issued long-awaited proposed guidelines targeting the packaged food and restaurant meals that contain the bulk of American’s daily sodium intake.

The voluntary proposals are the Obama administration’s latest effort to push the food industry toward reducing the amount of ingredients such as sugar and some fats in an effort to improve consumer health and reduce medical costs.

Critics in the food industry maintain the moves are based on sometimes-conflicting scientific evidence, and could inflate food costs and ruin the flavours and textures consumers prefer.

The assault on salt has been brewing since 2005, with studies linking prolonged over-consumption to elevated blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease and strokes, two of the biggest causes of death in the US. Other studies have cautioned about the detrimental impact of too little salt.

2,300mg the target

The FDA wants to cut individual daily salt intake to 2,300 milligrams over the next decade from a current average of about 3,400 milligrams.

It is targeting 150 categories of food, including soups, deli meats, bakery products, snacks and pizza, and officials said consumers have struggled to reduce their intake because most of it is added before it reaches the table.

“If people want to add more salt they can. What they can’t do today is take it out,” said Tom Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The voluntary salt targets are to be phased-in. The rules as currently proposed give manufacturers two years to begin cutting sodium levels in products, and up to 10 years to make further cuts. The longer time period is intended to recognise the time it takes to develop new foods products, the FDA said.

The burden of the push falls squarely on the prepared-foods sector, which the federal agency said accounts for around 70% of sodium consumption.

The sodium-reduction drive could heighten pressure on companies like PepsiCo, the largest US maker of salty snacks by sales, to reformulate popular products.

Already in progress

Lay’s Classic, the country’s top-selling potato chip brand and owned by PepsiCo, currently has 607 milligrams of sodium per 100-gram serving. That is above the FDA’s proposed two- and 10-year target means of 500 milligrams and 250 milligrams, respectively, for unflavoured potato chips.

Many food companies and restaurants have already taken steps to reduce sodium levels in meals, responding to consumer preferences.

PepsiCo several years ago developed a “designer salt” whose crystals were shaped and sized to reduce the amount that consumers ingest when they munch.

The company estimated in its most recent sustainability report that it had cut the average amount of sodium per serving in its key food brands by 10% between 2006 and 2014 globally, below its own 25% reduction target by 2020. “Our primary challenge in meeting this goal is consumer acceptance of reduced-sodium products in countries like the US and Saudi Arabia,’’ said PepsiCo.

Sodium is used as both a flavouring and preservative, and reducing salt levels in packaged foods will require investment from food makers.

General Mills committed to cutting sodium by 20% in 10 categories of foods by 2015 and reached its goal in seven of them. A spokeswoman called slashing salt contents in foods “technically difficult.” For example, it has added spices or changed processing to move salt to the food’s surface to increase its potency, she said.

Mars Food said it has reduced sodium in its food products by 25% since 2007, and it is seeking to cut levels by another 20% by 2021.

The initiative will cost at least $20-million and take 20,000 employee hours to achieve, including reformulating products, featuring healthier recipes on packages and improving employee cafeteria meals, a spokeswoman said.

Federal officials couldn’t estimate how much the salt regulations would cost to implement because they are voluntary. The FDA wouldn’t say when the rules would be finalised or if they would wrap up before a new administration takes office in January. Officials said they are pushing to get at least the two-year limits done as soon as possible.

“We don’t know how much dialogue with industry will be needed on this issue,” said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The FDA estimated that its guidelines to reduce sugar content would cost the food and beverage industry about $500-million a year to implement, while industry groups found the label change would come with a net cost of $640-million.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group, estimated that it would take six to 18 months and cost $500,000 to $700,000 to reformulate a product with less salt to meet the guidelines, assuming alternatives were available.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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COMMENT: Bad policy, bad science

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the few openly authoritarian organizations functioning in the United States, once sued the Food and Drug Administration for refusing to regulate Americans’ salt intake. No worries. Last week, the Obama administration finally embraced CSPI’s junk science and allowed the FDA to set new “guidelines” to “nudge” companies into treating a perfectly harmless ingredient as if it were a dangerous chemical…..

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