Nutritionists and public health experts commended the F.D.A. for taking on the problem of excess sodium, saying the effort would help sharpen the public’s focus on the dangers of overindulgence and create pressure on food companies to reduce their reliance on salt as a cheap flavor booster. But many said that voluntary measures were unlikely to move the needle very much. Some experts have suggested mandatory reductions, though they acknowledge that the food industry’s formidable lobbying power makes such measures unlikely at the federal level.
“This is a good start because there hasn’t been much guidance on sodium reduction from the F.D.A. in many years, but I would have preferred stronger guidance that is closer to mandatory,” said Dr. Larry Appel, director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research. “Voluntary measures just kick the can down the road.”
The food industry’s reaction to the new recommendations was somewhat muted. The National Restaurant Association and the Consumer Brands Association, which represents packaged food companies, declined to comment on the new guidelines; multinational food companies like PepsiCo, Nestlé and McDonald’s declined to comment or did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, a lobbying group created by the U.S. divisions of Nestlé, Danone, Mars and Unilever, applauded the new guidelines. “These targets present another opportunity for the food industry to support healthy eating by continuing to improve the nutrition profile of products,” it said in a statement.
The perils of excess sodium consumption are well documented, and public health experts have long urged federal regulators to take a more aggressive approach to reduce sodium levels in processed and prepared foods. The call to action first gained prominence at a White House conference on nutrition in 1969, followed a year later by an F.D.A. advisory committee report, which warned that salt was unhealthy at the levels then being consumed by most Americans.
In the decades since, salt consumption has remained well above recommended levels and the results have been catastrophic for public health, even more so for communities of color. On Wednesday, Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary and the first Latino to head the agency, sought to frame the new guidance as a way to tackle the health disparities that have become even more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate toll on Black and Hispanic people.
Referring to an aunt and an uncle whose premature deaths, he said, were linked to high blood pressure, he pointed out that low-income Americans whose diets are heavy in sodium-laden processed food are especially vulnerable.