Hold the salt: FDA introduces new sodium guidelines

The FDA guidelines, announced Wednesday, mark the first time the government is establishing a recommended sodium limit. It's one of several recent moves the FDA has made to make nutrition information more clear. 

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
A view shows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland (August 14, 2012).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to curb salt in America's food.

On Wednesday, the FDA released proposed guidelines intended to help the food industry make their products less salty, as part of an overall push on reducing sodium levels in food. As part of the guidelines, the FDA is setting recommended salt limits across nearly 150 food categories, from cereal to sandwiches.

The guidelines are voluntary, which means that food companies are not required to comply with them, but the FDA is encouraging food companies to cut overall sodium levels by about a third.

"The totality of scientific evidence, as reviewed by many well-respected scientific organizations, continues to support lowering sodium consumption from current levels," Susan Mayne, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said.

Wednesday’s guidelines mark the first time the government is establishing a recommended sodium limit. They  come after a six-year delay; the government first said it would release sodium-level guidelines in 2010. Part of the difficulty in regulating sodium is that it can hide in many different foods, from frozen dinners to restaurant entrées.

Many food processors have already either proposed reducing the sodium levels in their foods or made reductions ahead of the FDA’s guidelines, including Wal-Mart, Subway, and ConAgra Foods, which makes Slim Jims and Swiss Miss hot chocolate. Subway began reducing the salt content in its sandwiches in 2009.

At the same time, many food companies have contested the Obama administration’s attempts to regulate their products. In 2010, efforts to introduce guidelines on junk food being advertised to children faced opposition from both the food industry and a Republican-dominated Congress, which could make introducing mandatory sodium targets difficult down the road.

"[I]n this political climate with a Republican Congress and such massive industry opposition, we're gratified that the administration is at least coming out with voluntary targets," Michael Jacobson, the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The Associated Press.

Encouraging a reduction in sodium content is not the first push the FDA has made for changing the nature of the food we eat. In May, the FDA updated nutrition labels to more clearly distinguish calories and servings, and update serving size requirements. The FDA also modernized the list of what foods can be legally labeled as "healthy" partly due to confusion from old dietary guidelines.

The former guidelines, which were put in place more than 20 years ago, meant that Kind nutrition bars could not be labeled healthy on their packaging due to the amount of saturated fats in the bars. The FDA sent a warning letter to Kind regarding their labeling in 2015 because of the old guidelines. However, that fat content primarily comes from almonds, and current understandings of what constitutes a good diet mean that almonds and other nuts are considered healthy sources of fat. Now that the FDA has overhauled its guidelines, Kind is allowed to use the phrase “healthy and tasty” on its packaging again.

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