Obama Administration Goes After Salt

FDA issues voluntary sodium limits for nearly every food imaginable

A girl shovels salt inside a Salt factory
A girl shovels salt inside a Salt factory / AP
June 2, 2016

The Obama administration is setting sodium limits for nearly every food imaginable, the latest in a series of efforts to change how Americans eat.

The voluntary standards are meant to nudge restaurants and the food industry into reducing the amount of sodium in foods they serve. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is offering its preferred salt amounts for everything from Gouda cheese to fish jerky.

The administration said the purpose of the sodium limits are to "support increased food choice."

"Every day, Americans are getting too much sodium in their diet, and the majority comes from processed and prepared foods, not the salt shaker," the FDA said. "That is why we have developed draft guidance with sodium reduction targets to encourage industry to gradually reduce sodium in a wide range of foods."

The FDA has trained its targets on common foods such as French Fries, pizza, sandwiches, deli meats, pasta dishes, snacks, breads, and rolls. But the administration did not stop there, coming up with a list of 150 categories of food that restaurants should seek to reduce their sodium amounts.

The administration came up with sodium reductions for olives in brine or water; stuffed olives and olives in oil or sauce; and nut butters and seed pastes, including tahini. There are standards for canned soup, dry mix soup, frozen soup, and refrigerated soup.

"Dips with sour cream, cream cheese, yogurt, oil-based emulsion, and/or mayonnaise bases" should be reduced by 64 milligrams over two years, and 184 milligrams over a decade.

Meat jerky, poultry jerky, and fish jerky have limits, as does all frozen, ready-to-eat, and prepared muffins. "Shelf stable real and imitation bacon bits and pieces," canned anchovies, and peanut butter and jelly also have sodium targets.

The targets are separated into short-term goals of two years, and long-term goals in 10 years.

The administration hopes that the average sodium amount for french fries in restaurants would be cut in half in a decade, from 385 to 190 milligrams. A slice of cheese pizza would be reduced to just 310 milligrams of sodium by 2026, down from an average of 508 today.

The amount of salt in tacos, burritos, and enchiladas would be also be cut in half, from 487 to 220 milligrams in 10 years, if restaurants are pressured into adopting the standards.

Politico reported the new standards will "put significant pressure on food manufacturers and restaurants" to reduce the amounts of sodium they serve, and the FDA said its intended audience for the standards is the entire food industry.

"We believe that the goals contained in this guidance are of interest to all members of the food industry," the administration said. "Broad adoption of these voluntary recommendations by members of industry can create a meaningful reduction in population sodium intake over time and support adjustment of consumer taste preferences."

Overall, the administration seeks to cut the amount of sodium Americans consume by more than 1,000 milligrams per day.

The salt limits come after first lady Michelle Obama recently announced changes to the nutrition facts label, which makes calorie counts larger and requires listing "added sugars," a move criticized by nutritionists as not based on sound science.

Mrs. Obama was also heavily involved in changing the standards for school lunches, which has outlawed white bread, and imposed sodium limits, as millions of kids have left the lunch line.