The decision to adjust the maximum sodium levels permitted for foods that bear the implied nutrient content claim 'healthy' underlines continued consumer reticence towards low-salt products.
While the less restrictive, 'first-tier' sodium level requirements for all food categories, including individual foods (480 milligrams (mg)) and meals and main dishes (600 mg) has been retained, the 'second-tier' (more restrictive) sodium level requirements for all food categories has been dropped.
The decision will be welcomed by food makers who have argued that the technological barriers to reducing sodium in processed foods and poor sales of products that meet the second-tier sodium level has inhibited the development of new 'healthy' food products and risked eliminating existing 'healthy' products from the marketplace.
Indeed, developing salt substitutes that actually taste good has been a significant obstacle for the food industry. Receptors inside the human tongue require the shape and size of the sodium ion in order to register a salty taste.
The bottom line for manufacturers is that taste remains a dominant concern in determining consumer preference, and poor salt imitations have led to a number of discontinued product lines. It seems that while consumer awareness of excessive salt consumption has never been higher, American palates still demand salt.
For its part, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believes that retaining the higher first-tier sodium level requirements for all food products bearing the term 'healthy' but doing away with the second tier will encourage the manufacture of a greater number of products that are consistent with dietary guidelines for a variety of nutrients. The second tier ruling, which was originally due to come into law in 1998, was formulated as a 25 percent reduction on the original sodium disclosure level of 480 mg for individual foods (the first-tier level) that was agreed upon in 1994.
The agency determined then that higher levels of sodium would not be usefulto consumers wanting to use foods labeled as 'healthy' to limit their sodiumintake in order to achieve current dietary recommendations. However in 1996, ConAgra requested that the 1 January 1998 date for the second-tier sodium levels be delayed until such time as food technology 'catches up' with FDA's goal of reducing the sodium content of foods.
FDA responded by announcing a partial stay of the second-tier sodium levels until 1 January 2000, though this was later extended to 1 January 2006. The latest announcement however means that the second-tier sodium requirement will now not take effect, and the sodium requirements for products labeled as 'healthy' will remain at the current first-tier levels.
The FDA's final rule also revises the regulatory text of the 'healthy' regulation in order to clarify the scope and meaning of the regulation. The nutrient content requirements has been reformatted into a more readable set of tables, consistent with the Presidential Memorandum instructing that regulations be written in plain language.
While the ruling provides food makers with an element of breathing space, there is no question that salt consumption in the American diet needs to be reduced. One in three Americans regularly consumes more salt than is recommended, and most of this is in processed food.
Food manufacturers will therefore continue to find themselves under growing pressure to find ways of reducing salt, and the market for healthy alternatives to salt remains very attractive.
Health officials in United States have urged the reduction, or elimination, of sodium in the diet since it has been identified as a significant risk factor in developing high blood pressure and subsequent heart disease. At the same time, The National Academy of Sciences (NAS, Washington) recommended an increase of potassium intake to 4,700 mg per day based upon the evidence of potassium's role in controlling hypertension and preventing stroke.