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Correction to This Article
A chart with the article misstated the recommended daily sodium intake for special groups, such as people with hypertension and older adults. The recommendation for such special groups is less than 1,500 milligrams a day, but the chart used the "greater than" symbol.
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FDA plans to limit amount of salt allowed in processed foods for health reasons

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"If you consume a lot of salt, you also get rid of a lot of salt -- it doesn't mean it's an excess," he said. "I want to make sure they're basing this on everything that is in the scientific literature, so we don't end up being guinea pigs because someone thinks they're doing something good."

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Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which first petitioned the FDA to regulate sodium in 1978, said voluntary efforts by industry are laudable, "but they could change their minds tomorrow. . . . Limiting sodium might be the single most important thing the FDA can to do to promote health."

In January, New York City launched a campaign against salt, urging food manufacturers and chain restaurants to voluntarily reduce sodium by 25 percent in their products nationwide over the next five years. Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and the District are among a list of cities supporting the New York initiative.

A recent study by researchers at Columbia and Stanford universities and the University of California at San Francisco found that cutting salt intake by 3 grams a day could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks, strokes and cases of heart disease.

Most salt eaten by Americans -- 77 percent -- comes from processed foods, making it difficult for consumers to limit salt to healthy levels, experts say.

"We can't just rely on the individual to do something," said Cheryl Anderson, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who served on the Institute of Medicine committee. "Food manufacturers have to reduce the amount of sodium in foods."

Reducing salt across the food supply will be a massive and technically challenging project. Although many artificial sweeteners have been discovered, there is no salt substitute.

Humans have an innate taste for salt, which is needed for some basic biological functions. But beyond flavor, salt is also used as a preservative to inhibit microbial growth; it gives texture and structure to certain foods; and it helps leaven and brown baked goods.

Gary K. Beauchamp, a psychobiologist and director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, said salt also provides another, less understood quality. "It gives something that food people refer to as 'mouthfeel,' " said Beauchamp, who also served on the Institutes of Medicine committee. "For some soups, for instance, it's not just the salty taste -- sodium makes the soup feel thicker."

Policymakers will have to decide whether to exempt inherently salty foods, such as pickles, while mandating changes in other products to reduce the overall sodium levels in the food supply.

Above all, government officials and food industry executives say, a product with reduced salt must still taste good, or it will flop in the marketplace, as evidenced by several low-sodium products that had abysmal sales.

"Historically, consumers have found low-sodium products haven't been of the quality that's expected," said Todd Abraham, senior vice president of research and nutrition for Kraft Foods. "We're all trying to maintain the delicious quality of the product but one that consumers recognize as healthier."


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