The New York Times
The federal government proposed voluntary guidelines for the food industry to reduce salt in the American food supply on Wednesday, a move long sought by public health advocates who said the new standards could eventually help save thousands of lives.
The guidelines came after years of debate, and while voluntary, still set a benchmark by which companies can be measured, something health advocates say is critical to lowering salt levels in the American diet.
More than 70 percent of the sodium consumed in this country is already in food before it reaches the table, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines, put out by the Food and Drug Administration, are intended to help reduce that. They apply to packaged foods like bread, salad dressing, canned soup and cheese, as well as to meals in restaurants.
“While a majority of Americans reports watching or trying to reduce added salt in their diets, the deck has been stacked against them,” the F.D.A. said in a statement. “The majority of sodium intake comes from processed and prepared foods, not the saltshaker.”
Despite efforts over the past several decades to cut down on sodium, a main component of table salt, the average American adult still consumes 3,400 milligrams a day — equivalent to about 1.5 teaspoons of salt. That is nearly 50 percent more than the 2,300 the federal government recommends. Too much sodium can raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. One in three Americans have high blood pressure. For blacks, it is one in two.
But there has been some scientific controversy over how much to reduce sodium.
Some scientists say data has emerged showing that dropping below a certain level is actually dangerous, and raised the risk of heart attacks and other bad health outcomes. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that cutting out too much sodium could be harmful.
David A. McCarron, a research associate in the Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis, said a number of studies had shown risks of too little salt.
“Going below 3,000 is dangerous — that’s what the data has shown,” said Professor McCarron, who has consulted for the food industry.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., argued the current level is too high.
“We understand that there are some researchers who do not agree on the general consensus” of the correlation between sodium and poor health outcomes, he said. But, he added, “We find fatal flaws” in research they cite.
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