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US urges sharp drop in salt intake

By Mary Clare Jalonick
Associated Press / February 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The government is telling half of the US population to drastically cut their daily salt intake. That is the advice to consumers — and the food industry — as the government yesterday issued 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 — or 1,500 milligrams. In 2005, the government had said people in these groups should aim to reduce sodium consumption to this amount, but the new guidelines are worded more forcefully.

These groups include about half of the population and 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 consumes.

Too much sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and other problems. But cutting the salt won’t be easy.

“I think the impact on Americans’ eating behaviors has been negligible in the past and will be negligible again,’’ Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, said of the guidelines.

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.

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

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.

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.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she believes the Food and Drug Administration will have to take action for the companies to reduce enough salt to matter.

The FDA has said it will pressure companies to take voluntary action before it moves to regulate salt intake.

Consumers still have some control. The guidelines say people should:

■ Read nutrition labels and buy items labeled low in sodium.

■Add little or no salt when cooking or eating.

■ Consume more fresh or home-prepared foods and fewer processed foods.

■ Ask that salt not be added to foods at restaurants.

■ Gradually reduce sodium intake over time to get used to the taste.

Deborah Kotz of the Globe staff contributed to this report.