The Food and Drug Administration, citing an epidemic of diet-related illnesses, released new guidelines Wednesday aimed at reducing the amount of salt that Americans consume at restaurants, school cafeterias and food trucks, or when they are eating packaged and prepared foods at home.
The recommendations, issued after years of delay, seek to reduce the average daily sodium intake by 12% over the next 2½ years by encouraging food manufacturers, restaurants and food service companies to scale back their use of salt.
That goal translates into 3,000 milligrams of salt -- slightly more than 1 teaspoon -- compared with the 3,400 milligrams that Americans typically consume in a day. Health experts offered modest praise for the new guidance, saying it would help draw attention to the problem of excess sodium, but many expressed concern that voluntary measures might not be enough to compel change in an industry that often bridles at regulatory oversight.
America's love affair with salty foods has been linked to high rates of high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. More than four in 10 American adults have high blood pressure; among Black adults, that number is six in 10, the FDA said.
Much of the excess sodium that Americans consume, about 70%, comes from processed and packaged food and meals served at restaurants, according to researchers.
In a news conference announcing the recommendations, Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA commissioner, said they were the first step in a multiyear campaign to gradually lower the nation's sodium intake so it more closely aligns with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggest a healthy diet should contain no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.
Lowering sodium intake by about 40% over a decade, the FDA said, could save 500,000 lives.
The guidance will apply to 163 categories of processed and packaged food, and provide different targets for, say, rye bread, salad dressing and baby food. The recommendations also include scores of the most common dishes served by large restaurant chains such as cheesy pasta, french fries and tacos.
Nutritionists and public health experts commended the FDA for taking on the problem, saying the effort would help sharpen the public's focus on the dangers of overindulgence and create pressure on food companies to reduce their reliance on salt as a cheap flavor booster. But many said that voluntary measures were unlikely to move the needle very much.
"This is a good start because there hasn't been much guidance on sodium reduction from the FDA in many years, but I would have preferred stronger guidance that is closer to mandatory," said Dr. Larry Appel, director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research. "Voluntary measures just kick the can down the road."
The food industry's reaction to the new recommendations was muted. The National Restaurant Association and the Consumer Brands Association, which represents packaged food companies, declined to comment; multinational food companies such as PepsiCo, Nestle and McDonald's declined to comment or did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, a lobbying group created by the U.S. divisions of Nestle, Danone, Mars and Unilever, applauded the new guidelines. "These targets present another opportunity for the food industry to support healthy eating by continuing to improve the nutrition profile of products," it said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Xavier Becerra, the Health and Human Services secretary and the first Hispanic to head the agency, sought to frame the new guidance as a way to tackle the health disparities that have become even more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate toll on Black and Hispanic people.
Referring to an aunt and an uncle whose premature deaths, he said, were linked to high blood pressure, he pointed out that low-income Americans whose diets are heavy in sodium-laden processed food are especially vulnerable.
"The human and economic costs of diet-related diseases are staggering, and hundreds of thousands of Americans are learning that the hard way as they contract these chronic diseases and face the consequences of poor nutrition," he said.