A cornerstone of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s public health mission is to reduce the burden of chronic disease through improved nutrition. As a nation, we are facing a growing epidemic of preventable, diet-related conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, and the agency’s work in this area has become even more urgent. For these reasons, The FDA is taking a critical step to further address preventable diet-related chronic diseases and advance health equity that we hope will become one of the most significant public health nutrition interventions in a generation.
Limiting certain nutrients, such as sodium, in our diets plays a crucial role in preventing diseases like hypertension and cardiovascular disease that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minority groups; these diseases often result in hundreds of thousands of lives lost and billions in annual health care costs. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified these health disparities and the need for improved nutrition, as people with cardiovascular disease and other underlying conditions are at increased risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19.
On Tuesday, the FDA issued a final guidance, “Voluntary Sodium Reduction Goals: Target Mean and Upper Bound Concentrations for Sodium in Commercially Processed, Packaged, and Prepared Foods,” which provides voluntary short-term sodium reduction targets for food manufacturers, chain restaurants and food service operators for 163 categories of processed, packaged and prepared foods. The guidance is another step the agency is taking to advance the Administration’s whole-of-government approach to nutrition and health and improve future health outcomes.
By limiting certain nutrients like sodium in our diets, we can help prevent diseases like hypertension and cardiovascular disease that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minority groups, often resulting in hundreds of thousands of lives lost and billions in annual health care costs. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified these health disparities and the need for improved nutrition, as people with cardiovascular disease and other underlying conditions are at increased risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19.
Research shows that people consume 50% more sodium than recommended. This includes our youngest and most vulnerable populations, with more than 95% of children aged 2 to 13 years old exceeding recommended limits of sodium for their age groups. Although many consumers may want to reduce their sodium intake, about 70% of the sodium we eat comes from packaged, processed and restaurant foods, making it challenging to limit sodium. Changes across the overall food supply will make it easier to access lower-sodium options and reduce intake even in the absence of behavior change.
The targets in the final guidance seek to decrease average sodium intake from approximately 3,400 milligrams (mg) to 3,000 mg per day, about a 12% reduction, over the next 2.5 years. Although the average intake would still be above the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommended limit of 2,300 mg per day for those 14 and older, we know that even these modest reductions made slowly over the next few years will substantially decrease diet-related diseases.
The final guidance outlines short-term goals that the FDA is recommending the food industry work to meet as soon as possible to help optimize public health. They will continue discussions with the food industry as they monitor the sodium content of the food supply to evaluate progress. In the future, the FDA plans to issue revised, subsequent targets to further lower the sodium content incrementally and continue to help reduce sodium intake. This iterative approach will help support gradual reductions in sodium levels broadly across the food supply so that consumers’ tastes adjust, health outcomes improve and no one company or category of food is singled out or scrutinized. Voluntary and gradual approaches such as this have also been successful in other countries, such as Canada and the U.K.
The FDA first proposed recommendations for reducing sodium content in a 2016 draft guidance. A number of companies in the food industry have already made changes to sodium content in their products, which is encouraging, but additional support across all types of foods to help consumers meet recommended sodium limits is needed. Today, consumers can take steps to lower their sodium intake by reading food labels, including the Nutrition Facts label, asking for nutrition information at chain restaurants, choosing lower sodium options and speaking with their health care providers about eating healthier foods.
The FDA has said they are committed to playing its part to help create a healthier food supply, promote healthy habits early and empower consumers to make healthier food choices. Many of the federal, state and local partners also have initiatives underway that support sodium reduction and help people achieve healthier eating patterns overall. The goal is to act together to have a profound impact on the health of millions of people.