WASHINGTON — Chili’s Texas Cheese Fries are popular with diners — less so with cardiologists.
The tasty side dish packs a whopping 4,810 milligrams of sodium, far more than anything else on the restaurant chain’s menu and more than double the daily limit recommended for good health. But, if the Food and Drug Administration has its way, restaurants and processed foods sold around the country will soon be moving to lower the sodium in their offerings.
After years of debate, the FDA on Wednesday called on restaurants and food companies to cut the salt, noting that doing so would be the easiest way to reduce heart disease and stroke from high blood pressure, two leading causes of death in the United States. The FDA estimates that Americans get 75 percent of their salt from processed foods and restaurant meals.
The FDA’s proposal, which is a draft, is now open for public comment. It aims to reduce sodium in foods over the next 10 years, with the goal of decreasing Americans’ salt intake from a current average of 3,400 milligrams down to 2,300.
Here’s what the guidelines mean for consumers:
Are the proposed guidelines the same for all foods?
No. The FDA has designated 150 different categories, and plans to spend the next few months working out the details with industry before settling on goals. The draft proposal recommends that cereal be reduced from an average of 647 milligrams of sodium to 360; Parmesan cheese from 1,554 to 1,320; salad dressing from 1,047 to 590; and potato chips from 585 to 250.
Do food companies and restaurants have to comply with the new guidelines?
No. These guidelines are voluntary, and the food industry is free to ignore them. But, they do so at their peril.
Bruce Silverglade, an attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman and Matz PC, one of Washington’s premier food and agricultural law firms, said most businesses will feel they have to comply.
“Most of the industry is concerned that these voluntary targets will end up being de facto mandatory targets,” Silverglade said. “There will be a lot of pressure put on companies to reach the targets, and consumer groups will play a name and shame game on companies that don’t meet the targets.”
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that voluntary targets have worked well in other countries. Sodium intake decreased in Britain, for example, by 15 percent between 2003 and 2011, and deaths caused by heart disease and stroke over that time decreased by 40 percent.
Why is the FDA doing this now?
The guidelines have been a long time coming. The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed suit against the FDA last October to force the agency to act on a 2005 petition in which the consumer advocacy group asked the FDA to reduce excess salt in the food supply. (The center said Wednesday that FDA denied its petition, which sought mandatory, not voluntary, standards.)
Over the past few years, several agencies and other bodies, including the CDC, the Institute of Medicine, and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Sodium Working Group, examined the relationship between sodium and blood pressure, as well as the relationship between blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The results supported the consensus that reducing sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams would be viable and an effective way to reduce heart attacks and strokes.
How is the food industry taking it?
Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, an association of companies that produce and market salt, said that the new guidelines were unnecessary and that there was no scientific basis for their establishment.
“The government is trying to get Americans to eat such a low level of sodium that it would put them in the danger zone for a host of other negative health outcomes,” she said.
In a statement, Leon Bruner, chief science officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the world’s leading food, beverage, and consumer products companies, noted that many of its members had already reduced salt content by the equivalent of over 100 milligrams of sodium per person per day.
But the group made clear it does not accept the daily recommended goal of 2,300: “We believe additional work is needed to determine the acceptable range of sodium intake for optimal health,” Bruner said. “This evaluation should include research that indicates health risks for people who consume too much sodium as well as health risks from consuming too little sodium.”