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FDA Considers Limiting Sodium in Processed Foods

The Food and Drug Administration convenes its first public hearing on whether to limit sodium in processed foods. The American Medical Association says that 150,000 lives could be saved annually if salt in processed and restaurant foods was cut in half.

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In Your Health this morning, we'll look at two efforts to help you live longer. One involves a pill that you would take; the other involves something you should not take quite so often.

The Food and Drug Administration holds a hearing today on whether and how to limit sodium in processed foods. Nutrition advocates say many Americans have no idea that they are exceeding daily sodium recommendations and putting themselves at increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: If you're under the impression that your tongue can tell just how salty a food is, think again. Take, for example, a favorite salt-craver's snack: potato chips.

Ms. BONNIE LIEBMAN (Center for Science in the Public Interest): They taste salty but they are not high in salt.

AUBREY: Nutrition advocate Bonnie Liebman pulls a bag of chips off a supermarket shelf. She says with 95 milligrams of sodium per serving - that's less than 10 percent of a person's daily-recommended intake - chips happened to taste saltier because the salt's right on the surface of the food.

Ms. LIEBMAN: You can get some, like the salt in vinegar chips, which are 270 milligrams, but even that isn't high. If we go over to the frozen dinner section, you'll find some really high levels.

AUBREY: Such as personal size frozen pizzas with a 1200 milligrams of sodium or frozen mac and cheese with 920 milligrams. Either of these foods by itself would put you near the top of your daily salt limit.

Liebman says there are lots of foods, including packaged deli meats, soups, condiments and crackers, that are surprisingly high in sodium.

Ms. LIEBMAN: Seventy percent of the sodium we get comes from processed foods or restaurant foods - very little comes from the salt shaker.

AUBREY: Lots of people don't pay any attention at all to salts. But physician Laura Svetkey of Duke University says if you have high blood pressure or risk factors such as being overweight or having a family history of hypertension, it's important to be mindful.

Dr. LAURA SVETKEY (Duke University): There is clear evidence that if you reduce salt intake, you lower blood pressure. For most people. It doesn't work for everybody.

AUBREY: Genetic differences are likely at play for the minority of those who don't respond. Laura Svetkey says even if you are not at risk now, it's likely you will be. She explains that by the time Americans reach 45 years old, more than two-thirds have above optimal blood pressure readings. This is anything above 120/80.

Dr. SVETKEY: It seems you can forestall that rise with aging by adapting good lifestyle habits earlier in life. So if you're, you know, a young person who's lean and whose blood pressure is low, then in order to keep it that way, it's never too early to start thinking about healthy diet, healthy lifestyle habits.

AUBREY: The concern is not lost on the food industry. The Grocery Manufacturers Association says it doesn't so much like the idea of government regulations setting limits for salt in processed foods. But the industry's Robert Earl says his member companies do favor alternate approaches.

Mr. ROBERT EARL (Grocery Manufacturers Association): We absolutely have a role in helping consumers meet dietary goals for food intake patterns as well as nutrient recommendation.

AUBREY: Earl says this includes limiting sodium. One approach, he says, is to make slow incremental cuts in sodium so consumers don't even notice a change. Another is to step up marketing of low sodium alternatives.

Nutrition advocate Bonnie Liebman says some are already on store shelves.

Ms. LIEBMAN: This one has - this is a chicken noodle soup with 470 milligrams of sodium. That's still high, but it's much less than you'd get in a regular chicken noodle soup.

AUBREY: Liebman's group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, will tell the FDA today that the agency should set upper limits for sodium in all processed foods. Liebman says, short of that, consumers need to step up their own surveillance.

Ms. LIEBMAN: You can't tell salt by taste. You have to look at the sodium levels on the food label.

AUBREY: Liebman says there's no worry that reducing salt will make processed foods too bland. In England, where McDonald's now sells chicken nuggets with less than half of the sodium found in American McNuggets, the food is still plenty salty.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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