- FDA is proposing a rule to allow manufacturers to use salt substitutes in items with standards of identity that include salt.
- This rule would not require manufacturers to reformulate items, but would instead give flexibility to reformulate those that make some of the 140 products — that have salt or brine included in their codified standards of identity.
- People in the United States consume an average of 3,400 mg of sodium per day, according to FDA statistics — much more than the 2,300 mg recommended in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Because of negative health impacts of the overconsumption of salt, the federal government has made reduction a policy priority.
The federal government is taking a policy step forward on sodium reduction, but it’s unclear how effective this move could be in actually attaining that goal.
The Biden administration on the whole and FDA officials individually have repeatedly called out the dangers caused by eating too much salt. Sodium consumption has been linked to several health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. According to 2016 research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90% of children and 89% of adults consume more than the recommended levels of sodium.
FDA estimates more than three-quarters of the sodium Americans’ consume comes from processed and restaurant foods. In a written statement, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said that this proposed rule provides manufacturers with another tool to make their food better.
"Creating a healthier food supply, a key priority in the FDA's nutrition work, has the potential to improve Americans' health and reduce preventable diet-related diseases and deaths,” he said in the statement. “Reducing sodium in the food supply may also advance health equity—unfortunately, hypertension and other diet-related diseases disproportionally impact underserved communities."
But this rule wouldn’t require manufacturers to do anything different. It just offers flexibility to use salt substitutes for products in the 140 categories that are defined by federally regulated standards of identity. It doesn’t prescribe how much of a substitute should be used, which substitutes are better, or provide maximum amounts of sodium. In short, it’s permission to make substitutions.
It’s not clear if permission would lead to manufacturers actually making changes in their products. The federal government has issued several policies targeting salt reduction in the last few years, but they either allow for more flexibility or are voluntary. None have been requirements.
In late 2020, FDA issued its first policy targeted at sodium reduction, allowing potassium chloride to appear on ingredient labels as “potassium salt.” This came from a 2016 petition from ingredient maker NuTek Food Science, which wanted more consumer-friendly labeling terminology for the naturally occurring potassium-boosting ingredient.
In 2021, FDA released voluntary sodium reduction guidelines, which were non-binding recommendations for manufacturers and foodservice to follow to cut down on sodium intake. And while the guidelines themselves were praised, the fact that they were only voluntary — coupled with the five years it took for them to be issued — drew criticism from health advocates.
This proposed change to standards of identity is another first step towards salt reduction, but it remains to be seen if permission to use substitutes would be enough to encourage manufacturers to do it.