by Marion Nestle
Oct 22 2007

FDA hearings on salt

The FDA has just announced that it will be holding public hearings on November 29 to discuss issues related to salt labeling.  Right now, the FDA considers salt Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for human consumption but petitions from Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups are challenging that designation.  Should the FDA instead regulate salt as a food additive?  How could the FDA best use its regulatory authority to help Americans reduce their salt intake?  Expect fireworks at this hearing as the various stakeholders–health advocates vs. industry–weigh in.

  • Daniel Ithaca, NY

    *What would happen if the goal of the FDA with these (and other) food labels was to assist consumers to make informed decisions about the foods, (their sodium intake) and their health?

    *What if the FDA realized that if people eventually purchase less of the foods that are high in salt, they are likely to purchase something else–some other agricultural product instead?

  • Anton

    Why would we want people to reduce their salt intake?

    Has that been found to improve health?

  • Jane

    No, Anton, it has not been found to improve health. Salt is absolutely essential and without it, humans would die very quickly.

    Salt is really only consumed in high quantities in processed foods, which on their own would probably not be very palatable.

    However, I’d like to see some attention paid to the additives that are put in refined salt, as opposed to natural unrefined sea salt….the best you can do where salt is concerned!.

  • Sheila

    As a physician, I work with many patients who have high blood pressure, or complain of undesired swelling of their feet and hands due to no specific medical problem. I try to educate my patients about the role sodium salt may play in these probelms for some people. I explain to them that some salt is needed in the diet, but most processed foods have far more than necessary for health. And I explain to them that some people are quite sensitive to reductions in salt or sodium intake and experience a reduction of blood pressure and swelling when they reduce the salt/sodium intake. Many of my patients report being astounded at their total sodium intake when I ask them to start reading the labels on the canned and frozen foods they purchase. I encourage them to learn how to season fresh foods with fresh herbs, garlic, onion, lemon juice, etc. instead of adding salt or salted products such as bacon. When they followed these suggestions, many patients have found they needed less medication to control blood pressure or swelling of the hands and feet.
    Having said that, I don’t know that the FDA needs to regulate it as a food additive. I favor the educatoin of the people and the personal responsibility of choosing other flavor options.
    If the FDA regulates salt, how about cholesterol and saturated/trans fats in foods? How about sugars in foods? Consumption of all these things needs to be less than what is typical in the American diet, but I doubt American consumers will stand for it. We seem to think it is our right to eat ourselves to death.

  • I’m in complete agreement with Jane. The science behind the salt advisories is rather weak and much of the warnings are overblown. Many people who consume a lot of sodium (which is more correct than salt), eat a lot of processed food and are actually not getting enough potassium (removed in processed foods) to balance all that sodium.

    Sodium and potassium amounts tend to be much better and more eaily balanced with a diet of real, minimally processed foods.

  • Jane

    Yes, my main point was that sodium can be easily controlled by avoiding processed foods. Which should be avoided for a myriad of reasons.

  • I have to agree with Sheila on this one.

    As a dietetics student, I’ve learnt that a significant amount of the population are “salt responders”. That is, they get huge jumps in their blood pressure and can get edema if they eat a lot of sodium. “Non-salt responders”, with the same intake, wouldn’t feel a thing.

    For the percent of the population who are salt responders, it’s crucial for them to check their sodium intake as it can cause high blood pressure and other problems. If they are already on blood pressure medications, a sodium-reduced diet can help decrease the dose of the medication needed.

    I’m not sure it’s up to the FDA to regulate the country’s intake of sodium, but it’s nice to know they’re paying attention.

    I also agree with Jane and Anna that a diet without processed foods contains much-less sodium and there would be less problems if everyone ate this way – but to say that a high sodium hasn’t been shown to cause any medical problems is absolutely false.

    And as far as sea salt is concerned, I’m so tired of hearing people make these mistakes! Salt, is salt, is salt, is salt! While you may prefer the taste of one over the other, whether you’re eating refined table salt or sea salt has the same effect on your body. The only difference would be to make sure the sea salt is iodinated (I’m not sure about the rules about this in the US, but in Canada they have to be) to help prevent goitre.

  • Good points made above. Despite many people consuming too much sodium the NaCl doesn’t seem to be nearly as much a factor as the excessive consumption of the highly processed foods it is commonly found in.
    In comment #1 I was really looking at the larger picture of how companies are allowed to use on-package product promoting health claims and other confusing labeling– including the ingredient list. A good example is Lucky Charms which have a “Whole Grain” proclamation on the front and combine several different sugars (listed 5 times) and “flour” and “corn starch”. A product could be either
    Contain some Whole Grain

  • Jane

    My point about sea salt is that it’s free of unnatural additives. Plus, it contains trace nutrients that refined table salt does not.

    Kind of like raw honey versus corn syrup. Same effect on blood sugar, but at least the honey has a few redeeming qualities!

  • Interesting fact: In the new Dietitians of Canada position statement released today, they claim that “It is estimated that almost one in three Canadians who have hypertension would have normal blood pressure if there was less sodium in our food.”


    I can only imagine the data is similar in the US, and considering that high blood pressure is a precursors for many causes of death, this alone should move both the American and Canadian governments to work on something to encourage food producers to decrease the salt content of their packaged foods.

  • Sorry that URL is so madly long! You can read those whole position statement at:

  • Dietary sodium isn’t the culprit; it’s serum sodium. And one of the chief mechanisms regulating the amount of serum sodium is the effect of insulin on the kidneys. More insulin means more serum sodium, which correlates to higher blood pressure.

    Therefore, CSPI would do better to try to get sugar and HFCS off the GRAS list.