By: Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
It’s been 50 years since National Nutrition Month began as a week-long celebration, and never has it been more imperative than today that nutrition takes center stage. That year, in 1973, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule establishing voluntary nutrition labeling of packaged foods, a milestone that has been followed by government-wide progress in nutrition labeling, guidance, education and research.
Despite much progress, there is an epidemic of chronic diseases in the U.S., such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, cancer and obesity. Poor nutrition plays a key role in chronic but preventable diseases. These chronic diseases are leading causes of death and disability in the U.S., and many can be prevented with improved nutrition. Racial and ethnic minority groups, those with lower socioeconomic status, and those living in rural areas disproportionately experience these diet-related chronic diseases.
In September 2022, at the Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the second conference of its kind in more than 50 years, the White House released a National Strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so that fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases like diabetes, cancer, obesity and hypertension. The National Strategy provides a road map of actions the federal government will take as part of a “whole-of-government” approach. The problems of hunger and diet-related disease are multifaceted, requiring multifaceted solutions not just by government but by society as well.
The FDA is embracing this strategy through the agency’s nutrition programs. The FDA’s proposed redesign of the Human Foods Program includes the creation of a Center for Excellence in Nutrition. The new center will prioritize the agency’s ongoing efforts to help consumers make more informed food choices, and encourage industry to offer healthier, more nutritious food products.
Our work on sodium reduction is a prime example of how the FDA is contributing to the strategy of the White House conference. We’ve known the importance of sodium reduction for some time and have worked toward sodium reduction through labeling and consumer education. Excess sodium consumption increases risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. More than 100 million American adults have hypertension. But we knew that while important, labeling and education were not enough because the majority of sodium in our diets is already added to processed, packaged and prepared foods, not added at the table or during cooking – so even the most motivated consumers have challenges limiting their sodium intake. That is why in October 2021, the FDA issued short-term voluntary sodium reduction targets to facilitate reducing sodium in these foods.
We aren’t stopping here, however. We can make even more progress. The voluntary targets are short term and are the first step in a gradual, iterative approach to help facilitate reducing sodium consumption toward recommended limits over time. Our short-term targets are estimated to reduce sodium intake but not all the way to recommended limits, so we are monitoring the food supply to develop updated, revised targets in the future. What is especially exciting is to see the “whole-of-government” approach in action with sodium reduction. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed updates to school nutrition standards that included proposed limits to sodium in school meals, noting the importance of our sodium reduction targets to support their goals.
On Friday, we announced our plans to issue a proposed rule that if finalized, would allow industry to use salt substitutes in standardized foods, such as canned vegetables and breads, and thereby lower the sodium in these foods. We also issued a draft guidance to provide industry with our current thinking on how and when to use Dietary Guidance statements in food labeling and to ensure that these statements promote good nutrition and nutritious dietary practices. For these statements, such as “make half your grains whole grains” and “eat a variety of vegetables,” the guidance recommends that foods not exceed certain amounts of sodium as well as saturated fat and added sugars.
The FDA has also proposed an updated definition for the “healthy” nutrient content claim that manufacturers can use on food packages if the food meets our definition, and the proposal includes limits for sodium, along with other nutrients to limit. And we have issued a final guidance on the use of “potassium salt” as an alternate name for potassium chloride in the ingredient statement on food labels, which may better inform consumers that it is a salt substitute. Many consumers may not realize that sodium disclosure is also part of our menu labeling requirements. Along with disclosing the number of calories in standard menu items, covered establishments are required to provide, upon request, written nutrition information for standard menu items, including sodium. The FDA’s focus also includes online grocery shopping because we want consumers who shop online to have access to consistent and accurate nutrition labeling information.
Even after 50 years, National Nutrition Month is more important than ever. Our work to reduce sodium in the food supply, and improve menu and nutrition labeling, will empower consumers and increase the availability of healthier foods for all.