- Associated Press - Monday, January 31, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - The government is telling half of the U.S. population to drastically cut their daily salt intake.

That’s the advice to consumers _ and the food industry _ as the government issues new dietary guidelines, which are the recommendations behind the popular food pyramid.

For the first time, the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments, which issue the guidelines every five years, are telling people who are 51 and older, all African-Americans and anyone suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease to cut the amount of sodium they eat daily to little more than half a teaspoon.

That group includes about half of the population and those who are most at risk of having higher blood pressure due to the amount of salt they eat. For everyone else, the government continues to recommend about a teaspoon a day _ 2,300 milligrams, or about one-third less than the average person usually consumes.

The assault on salt is aimed strongly at the food industry, which is responsible for the majority of sodium most people consume. Most salt consumption doesn’t come from the shaker on the table; it’s hidden in foods such as breads, chicken and pasta.

It has long been known that too much sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and other problems. But cutting the salt won’t be easy.

The prestigious Institute of Medicine has said it could take years for consumers to get used to the taste of a lower-salt diet. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the government is trying to be realistic while targeting the highest-risk groups.

“I think it’s important for us to do this in a way that doesn’t create an immediate backlash,” he said. “If we fail to get our arms around the obesity epidemic, especially in our children, we’re going to see a significant increase in health care costs over time.”

A number of major food makers have announced plans during the past few years to cut sodium in their products as pressure from health advocates, consumers and regulators has built.

Kraft Foods Inc., ConAgra Foods Inc., General Mills Inc., Heinz Co., Campbell Soup Co. and Bumble Bee Foods Inc. are just some of the companies that have committed to lowering sodium levels. But it’s often a multiyear process to dial down the sodium, largely so consumers do not detect the changes in taste.

Campbell’s said Monday that it now sells over 200 lower sodium products, which they say is eight times the number of reduced sodium foods they offered five years ago.

But it’s unclear if the industry will be able to cut enough to satisfy the new guidelines. The Food and Drug Administration has said it will pressure companies to take voluntary action before it moves to regulate salt intake.

Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Department, said food companies will have to make cuts for the reductions to work.

“Even the most motivated consumer can make only a certain amount of progress before it’s clear that we need extra support from the food industry,” Koh said.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the heightened interest in the dangers of too much sodium could help somewhat. But she believes the FDA will have to take action for the companies to reduce enough salt to matter.

Story Continues →