by Marion Nestle
Apr 21 2010

FDA to regulate salt? If not now, when?

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the FDA is about to launch an initiative to get food companies to reduce the amount of sodium in their foods.

If true, this would be a major big deal.  But by late afternoon, the FDA had issued a press release denying the Washington Post’s report (and see note below):

A story in today’s Washington Post leaves a mistaken impression that the FDA has begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods. The FDA is not currently working on regulations nor has it made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.

Over the coming weeks, the FDA 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 FDA is referring to a report also issued yesterday by the Institute of Medicine: Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States. According to the IOM Summary, voluntary efforts by the food industry to reduce sodium intake have failed.  The report’s first recommendation is for the government to set standards for the sodium content of packaged foods.  And that sounds like what the Washington Post thought the FDA was about to do.

The idea is to get all companies to start reducing sodium.  USA Today quotes Jane Henney, the previous FDA Commissioner who chaired the IOM committee: “The best way to accomplish this is to provide companies the level playing field they need so they are able to work across the board to reduce salt in the food supply.”

The IOM is doing a public briefing on the report at 10:00 a.m. today, at the National Press Club in Washington DC.  You can listen to it via audio webcast at

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) first asked the FDA to start regulating salt in processed foods in 1978.  Its press release and report, Shaving Salt, Saving Lives, explain why the FDA’s action would be such good news for public health.

Salt is as controversial as any nutrition issue can get.  I expect plenty of pushback from the Salt Institute and other industry trade groups if there is any hint that FDA might be about to regulate salt content.  Could the FDA’s denial be the result of industry pressure?  It would be interesting to find out.

Some basic facts: Recall that sodium is 40% of table salt (sodium chloride).  Too much raises the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.  Nearly 80% of salt is in processed and pre-prepared foods that are salted before they get to you.

The recommended maximum for adults is 2300 mg or about a teaspoon a day.  If you are at risk for high blood pressure, the maximum is just 1500 mg, or two-thirds of a teaspoon.  Americans consume more than twice that much on average.

Note added April 20: the FDA has produced a Q and A on its salt regulatory policy.

Additions April 21: Here’s the New York Times story on the IOM report.  The LA Times reports on the amounts of sodium in fast food restaurant meals.  Impressive.

  • annie

    not to mention that most packaged foods, canned or otherwise contain sodium as a result of processing. even a can of applesauce has sodium content. the best solution is make your own foods, freeze or bottle them yourself. any packaged container of commercial salt or even the pseudo-sea-salt contains sugar as an ingredient. buy coarse sea salt or grey salt; the “dirtier” the better. and also remember that unrefined sea slat contains all the trace minerals a body can use. once salt is processed, the trace minerals are removed. how does that change our blood’s activity? research, folks, research..

    read labels if you are buying packaged foods.

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  • There’s really an unneeded amount of salt in most processed and canned foods. I honestly don’t think a little less salt will do much harm to these companies. If their food cannot taste good without handfuls of salt, then it shouldn’t be worthy of being on the shelves anyways!

  • Joy

    Many foods have inherent salt. But salt and sugar that is added by the manufacturer – and shown on the ingredient list – is not so hard to avoid if you keep an eye out.

    Common available foods with no added salt/sugar that most of us are not going to can or grow ourselves:
    o Whole tomatoes and tomato sauce, paste & puree.
    o Single-ingredient frozen/canned vegetables and some fruits. (I just bought some applesauce with no added salt or sugar today, Annie.)
    o Unblended herbs and spices.
    o Canned tuna (not sodium-free, but you can get it without ‘added’ salt)
    o Yogurt with only milk and live cultures
    o Bulk items like beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains (which are also unrefined).

    Don’t buy rice in a box or nuts in a can. Indian shops have unrefined bulk grains and spices with no additives. If your grocers don’t carry foods without added salt, ask that they begin stocking them.

    For popcorn free of salt and artificial ingredients, put popping corn from the bulk department in an ordinary paper bag and microwave it.

    Avoid salt through observation and a little dedication. Get young kids reading the labels – they love to help – and their eyes can easily handle the tiny print.

  • Mike

    Hey Marion,

    I enjoy the blog and appreciate you fighting for better nutrition, but I’m curious why you’re so concerned about salt?

    It’s my understanding that unless you have a specific medical condition which is aggravated by high sodium intake, salt is not harmful in any way. Assuming a person is reasonably hydrated, I thought the kidneys were perfectly capable of regulating sodium levels.

    Is salt, in isolation, really the issue here? Or is it an indicator of a larger problem related to the poor overall nutritional quality of most processed foods? Is the evidence so overwhelming, the dangers so clear and specific that it warrants the government stepping in to regulate?

  • Pete

    Good post Mike.

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  • Mitzi

    Pete and Mike,
    If you loved a salt-sensitive person, your responses would be totally different. We actually only need about 300-500 mg of sodium a day, not even the 1500 mg the IOM says is adequate. This was determined back when Britain colonized India and decided to tax salt. Shopping is a mine field out there, and I have to be vigilant about reading every label. I don’t even bother with some aisles of the store. And the labels are not always accurate, so with a new brand of chips or crackers I often taste them first. Now I home-cook everything. Eating this way will keep my blood pressure down and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. There is nothing to lose by bringing the nasty salt level in restaurant and processed foods down. Maybe we could eat out more or I could spend less time in the kitchen if those who want us to consume their products actually produced decent food, that they didn’t have to disguise with sugar, salt, and fat.

  • Eve


    Love the updates. I am an RD and admire you for putting yourself out there against some money-tough opponents. It is certainly amusing to me that the USDA and DHHS continue to choose to recommend “eat more fruits and vegetables” in their guidelines as opposed to a more controversial, but probably more effective if one did it, “reduce the amount of processed and restaurant foods.” Hmm….I get that those food companies have a LOT of dough and are willing to spend it to get government agencies on their side, which is really sad, and mostly sad for the health of our country. If we are talking sodium, it is simply lowered by limiting processed and restaurant foods, just as your sodium chart suggests in a previous post, but I suppose food companies would never allow that and the consumer still needs to make a choice. And, it is never that easy. Long live freedom!

    Thank you!


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