(Adds FDA official, salt group, other comments throughout)
By Kim Dixon
COLLEGE PARK, Md., Nov 29 Public health advocates on Thursday called for tighter restrictions on salt content in food, arguing that cutting the nutrient's overuse by most Americans could save thousands of lives annually.
Excessive salt in Americans' diets is a major factor in high blood pressure and increases risk for heart disease, while most Americans exceed recommended limits, according to health experts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) cited these factors in urging stricter regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at a public hearing, held on Thursday at the FDA.
Trimming the salt content in processed and restaurant foods by half could save up to 150,000 lives a year by reducing heart-related disease, according to the consumer group, whose petition to the FDA prompted the public hearing.
"I am sure no one would tolerate so many deaths from airline crashes, so why tolerate it from food?" Dr. Stephen Havas, vice president for science and public health at the American Medical Association, said.
The CSPI, backed by several public health groups, wants the FDA to beef up labeling, require manufacturers to cut salt in packaged foods, and revoke salt's "generally recognized as safe" status, subjecting it to stricter regulations as a food additive.
The FDA, which has not considered the issue since 1982, now now uses labeling to inform the public about salt, and approves claims such as "low sodium."
"It is really a good time to be having this meeting," Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's food safety office said, citing increased research and regulatory changes in other countries.
The American Heart Association advises adults to limit daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams, or about one teaspoon. The average American consumes about 3,300 milligrams per day, according to government data.
The group backs moving nutrient labeling to the front of packaging and stricter limits for claims like "low sodium." This would give manufacturers an incentive to cut added salt, it said.
The bulk of sodium in modern diets comes from processed foods like frozen dinners and condiments. One frozen chicken teriyaki dinner, or one small can of Bloody Mary mix, contains a full day's worth of sodium, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI.
"Clearly, salt should be considered generally recognized as dangerous, not safe," Jacobson said.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association favors keeping the current regime, arguing that cutting salt too much turns off consumers because of bland taste. It also said studies on health risk have not been rigorous enough.
"Salt has been used safely in foods since antiquity," said Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the food industry trade group. Others said they might support incremental changes. For example, to get a label for a "reduced sodium" claim now, industry must cut sodium by 25 percent against a reference food.
If companies could get a claim by trimming sodium by just 10 percent, that could be an incentive to make gradual reductions, Kathy Wiemer of the General Mills Inc (GIS.N) Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition said.
That also would make it easier on consumers to get used to the taste of less salt, she added.
Public health advocates, though, said voluntary measures have not worked for decades, as salt consumption has risen steadily in the U.S., and with it, heart-related diseases. "These will continue to be ineffective without mandating lower levels of sodium in food products," Richard Kahn, chief scientific and medical officer of The American Diabetes Association said.
Britain adopted an aggressive labeling system including front-of-package labeling, and it has been successful in moving the industry to change, several experts said.
For example, several of McDonald's Corp. (MCD.N) products in Britain contain nearly half the amount of sodium as similar products in the United States, according to Jacobson.
"Americans don't consume large amounts of salt because they request it, but often do so unknowingly because manufacturers and restaurants put it in," AMA's Havas said.
(Editing by John Wallace and Carol Bishopric)
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