UPDATE 1-Sixteen firms join NY mayor's salt-cutting quest
* Goal is to cut salt in food products by a quarter
* Companies praise move that leaves them free to choose
* Too much salt in the diet causes high blood pressure (Adds new Bloomberg statement, company reactions, details)
By Basil Katz
NEW YORK, April 26 (Reuters) - Starbucks (SBUX.O) and Heinz (HNZ.N) were among 16 U.S. food companies pledging on Monday to cut salt levels in their products as part of a national campaign started by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The pledges are part of Bloomberg's National Salt Reduction Initiative, a coalition of cities and health organizations that aim to reduce salt in restaurant and packaged foods by 25 percent over five years.
Starbucks will cut salt in its breakfast sandwiches, while Heinz will reduce sodium levels in its ketchup and marinades, and Boar's Head will cut salt in all manner of cured meats, cold cuts and sausages.
Other companies involved are Au Bon Pain, FreshDirect, Goya, Hain Celestial Group (HAIN.O), Kraft KFT.N, LiDestri, Mars Food US, McCain Foods, Red Gold Inc., Subway, Unilever (ULVR.L), Uno Chicago Grill and White Rose.
Eating too much salt is a major cause of high blood pressure, which raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. Salt intake has been rising since the 1970s, with Americans consuming about twice the recommended daily limit.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said this month it is considering recommendations from an influential federal panel on ways to reduce salt intake in the United States including federal regulation of salt content in foods.
Bloomberg applauded the companies' voluntary goals, saying this was necessary to escape regulation from Washington.
"I would rather have the flexibility to have some products low and some products high and meet the demands of the marketplace, but keep the government out of my business," Bloomberg said.
As part of Monday's announcement, Mars Foods said it will reduce sodium from 800 mg to 600 mg per serving of its flavored Uncle Ben's rice products.
But most companies would not discuss what particular products would change and by how much. Under the plan they can decide to reduce sodium in some products and not others, as long as the average reduction -- weighted by the sales numbers -- meets the 25 percent target.
Kraft spokeswoman Valerie Moens said the company already had embarked on a "10 percent average sodium reduction across our North American portfolio over the next two years."
"That means working toward a total average reduction across our North American business instead of specific targets in every category in which we compete," Moens said.
Starbucks did not state which products it would alter.
Salt is used primarily to improve flavor, leaving consumers and businesses worried that some foods may not taste the same after sodium is cut. But this agreement leaves companies free to choose which products to modify, provided the products with less sodium sell sufficiently to meet a target of reducing salt consumption by 20 percent.
The initiative targets restaurants and packaged food because only 11 percent of sodium in American diets is added by consumers. Nearly 80 percent is added to foods before they are sold, the New York City Health Department reported.
The current proposals are designed to reduce Americans' salt consumption by 20 percent by 2014.
"If they have even a smallish reduction in a very good selling product, that can be a substantial reduction across the entire range of products," said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley.
U.S. researchers found recently that cutting salt intake by nearly 10 percent could prevent hundreds of thousands of heart attacks and strokes over several decades and save the United States $32 billion in healthcare costs.
Bloomberg, in his third term as mayor, has become an advocate for healthy living by banning smoking and trans fat, requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts of their menu items and campaigning against sugary drinks.
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Lisa Baertlein; editing by Michelle Nichols and Will Dunham)
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