- Potassium chloride, which some manufacturers use as a substitute for salt, can appear on ingredient labels as "potassium salt," the FDA announced in a document published in the Federal Register.
- The decision is the result of a 2016 petition from NuTek Food Science, a clean-label ingredients company. Potassium chloride is a naturally occurring salt that is used in food because it has the benefits of boosting potassium intake and reducing the use of conventional salt. It previously had to be referred to on ingredient labels as "potassium chloride," and NuTek wanted the agency to permit more consumer-friendly terminology. FDA also asked for comments about referring to the ingredient as "potassium chloride salt," but found "potassium salt" was a better option.
- Consumers want to eat foods that are healthier and have shorter, easy to understand ingredient lists. Food companies are responding by reformulating their products, resulting in positive differences in Nutrition Facts panels and ingredient lists.
In recent years, FDA and USDA — both of which handle parts of food regulation — have been working to modernize to better serve today's consumers. From the Nutrition Facts revamp to updating egg product inspection to getting rid of standards of identity for frozen cherry pie and French dressing, several changes have taken more antiquated regulations and made them more relevant.
This change fits into that category. Instead of forcing manufacturers to use the chemical name of potassium salt, it allows the ingredient to have a more common and understandable name.
Salt is in many processed foods and can contribute to major health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, calcium loss and strokes. According to the FDA, average per capita sodium consumption in 2016 was about 3,400 milligrams — 50% more than recommended. The agency published draft voluntary targets to limit sodium consumption to 3,000 mg daily by 2018 and 2,300 mg daily by 2026.
Although these guidelines have been criticized because they are voluntary, many manufacturers have been reformulating to try to reach this goal. Potassium chloride is a common and inexpensive way to get there. Companies, including Campbell Soup and Unilever, as well as snack food industry group SNAC International submitted letters of support for the change. A prominent — and unsurprising — opponent of the change was the now-defunct Salt Institute, which had been dedicated to promoting the health benefits of salt.
Potassium is a vital nutrient for the body's health, regulating heartbeat, muscles and nerves, and keeping blood pressure down, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The daily recommended intake of potassium is 4,700 mg. Most Americans get barely half that amount in their daily diets, according to the university. It's an important enough nutrient that a product's potassium content is broken out on the revamped Nutrition Facts label. A quarter teaspoon of potassium salt provides about a sixth of the amount consumers should have each day, according to the Harvard Heart Letter.
What consumers know as salt has a chemical name of sodium chloride. Regulators have never required it to be labeled as such; "salt" is sufficient. While the chemical names are accurate, they generally aren't well received by consumers. Research commissioned by NuTek Food Science that was included in the initial petition to FDA asked 466 consumers if they would be concerned about several potential ingredients in food. More than a quarter — 26% — said they were concerned about "potassium chloride." Conversely, 19% were concerned about "potassium salt." For "sodium chloride," 31% of consumers would be concerned about the ingredient on the label, while less — 22% — were concerned about "salt."
Chemical names of any sort tend to turn consumers off, no matter what the substance is. A 2017 study from InsightsNow found that one in 10 young consumers wanted to ban "dihydrogen monoxide" — which is the chemical name for water — from being used in food. Consumers in NuTek's labeling study said they were concerned about the term "chloride," saying the terminology sounded to them like a synthetic chemical additive. Commenters said consumers may also pass over a product with "potassium chloride" in favor of one with "salt" because they may not think the first product is seasoned.
The fact that more than a fifth of consumers in the NuTek study were concerned about salt as an ingredient further drives home why this labeling change is important. These consumers already know that regular salt is not healthy for them, so they have their eyes open for alternatives. "Potassium chloride" may not sound like one, but "potassium salt" does. Being able to use that name on a product label will help consumers make both healthy and informed choices, which could be beneficial in the long run.