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On October 13, 2021, the FDA released voluntary sodium reduction goals for 163 categories of commercially prepared foods, with the goal of reducing sodium intake in the population by 12% over the next 2.5 years. These short-term targets are intended to balance the need for gradual reductions in sodium intake with the known technical and market challenges of sodium reduction in commercial foods.
Goals of the new guidance
Reduction of sodium intake is a critical public health goal as excess sodium intake has been linked to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and stroke. The average sodium intake in the U.S. is around 3,400 mg/day, substantially higher than the 2,300 mg/day recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. According to the FDA, more than 70 percent of sodium intake in the U.S. is from commercial food preparation, including packaged foods, restaurants, and foodservice. The new voluntary targets are intended to bring the average intake to approximately 3,000 mg/day, but the FDA plans to issue revised targets over time to continue to incrementally reduce sodium intake across the food supply.
The long road to sodium reduction
The finalization of this guidance comes five years after the initial draft guidance that received more than 200 comments from stakeholders. However, the emphasis on sodium reduction in the food supply has been around for decades. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released a consensus study report, “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States,” urging the FDA to set mandatory standards for the sodium content of foods to incrementally reduce the sodium content of foods over time. While the report addressed the technical and consumer acceptance challenges of sodium reduction, it concluded that voluntary and mandatory regulatory efforts were needed to achieve the greatest impact in sodium reduction.
Approaches to technical challenges of reducing sodium
Sodium chloride is the primary source of dietary sodium and plays an important role in food safety and preservation, texture, taste, and flavor. Other sodium-containing ingredients (e.g., sodium bicarbonate, sodium benzoate) have functional roles in foods and contribute, although in lesser amounts, to the total amount of sodium in the diet.
A variety of innovative technologies have been developed to allow sodium reduction in foods while maintaining food safety, shelf-life, and taste profiles. These include using salt substitutes, physical modifications to salt or other ingredients which impart saltiness, alternative water binding, and preservation technologies.
Potassium chloride provides a good salty taste but has a bitter aftertaste. However, some foods with as much as a 50:50 mix of potassium chloride to sodium chloride have been produced with little impact to bitterness. Potassium/sodium chloride blends can also provide dual health benefits of reducing sodium while increasing potassium, a nutrient of public health concern because of poor intake among most Americans. With the slower, smaller reductions proposed by the FDA in the current guidance and the potential health benefits, the use of potassium/sodium chloride blends deserves reevaluation as a possible solution.
In foods receiving surface applications of salt, physical modifications to the salt structure using microspheres or by altering crystal growth have been able to produce foods with similar taste profiles with less sodium. High-pressure processing of meat products has enabled food preservation with less sodium while also maintaining desirable texture and sensory qualities. New technologies, such as proteins recovered from meat by-products, show promise in reducing salt in deli meats by binding water. Additionally, the utilization of mushrooms blended with meats has created opportunities for sodium reduction due to the umami flavor provided by the mushrooms as well as the water-binding capacity.
There remain substantial hurdles to sodium reduction in the food supply that require continued research and development. For example, salt can mask bitterness in foods, but the mechanism of how this is accomplished is unclear and additional research could help identify other compounds to mask bitterness in foods. Additionally, the identification of more foods and ingredients with umami flavors may also enhance sodium reduction efforts. There is also an opportunity for food manufacturers and foodservice operators to share learnings, successes, and failures in reformulation efforts to promote technologies that work and avoid ineffective methods.
The FDA has made the first strides toward a gradual sodium reduction with this first set of guidance for voluntary sodium reduction in commercially prepared foods. Technologies are currently available and under development to achieve sodium reduction in foods with minimal impact on taste, texture, and safety. It will take a concerted effort with government, food industry, and consumers to bring sodium intake into greater alignment with the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
About the Authors
John Ruff is the chief science and technology officer at IFT.
Lisa Sanders, PhD, RD, is a nutrition science consultant for IFT.
IFT's Science and Policy Initiatives team identifies challenges with the agency's proposed claims for which foods merit the label "healthy."
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