Sodium intake limits may sink soon to 1,500 mg per day in federal dietary guidelines, according to Sarika Haris, PhD, senior scientist, General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, Minneapolis.

“We expect to see a lower sodium level when the expert report from the Institute of Medicine comes out, which should be in June,” she said. “It could very well be the American Heart Association’s 1,500-mg daily limit.”

Dr. Haris spoke to attendees at the Spring Technical Conference of the Milling and Baking Division of AACC International, held April 10-12 at Phoenix. She specializes in regulatory and nutritional issues for General Mills.

“Global sodium reduction activity continues to intensify,” Dr. Haris said. The push comes from policy makers at government regulatory agencies as well as consumer advocacy groups. Canada and the United Kingdom have already begun voluntary sodium reduction programs targeted at the food processing industry. “But how voluntary are these recent announcements when they come from government agencies?” she asked.

In April 2010, General Mills accelerated its program to reduce sodium across key food categories. Some of the specific targets were a 10% cut in sodium for soups, 20% for Chex snack mixes and 10% for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. As of this year, the company reached these levels in more than 250 SKUs.

“We support small, gradual steps to achieve sodium reduction,” Dr. Haris reported. “There’s no single solution that works across the board.”

Taking sodium out of processed foods is not easy. Among the reasons she cited were salt’s role in food safety as an inhibitor of microbial growth. Another problem is that many salt substitutes require accompanying use of flavor-masking agents. “This will just put another ‘chemical sounding’ name on food labels at a time when consumers are asking for simpler ingredient lists,” she observed.

Reformulation takes time and resources, and Dr. Haris noted a typical timeframe of 2½ years for reworking consumer products.

In the question-and-answer session, she cautioned about labeling restrictions that apply when cutting salt. To make a reduced-sodium claim, the food must achieve a 25% cut in sodium compared with the regular product.

On the public health side of sodium reduction, Dr. Haris found hope for garnering real results. “We’ve found some change in UK eating patterns,” she said. “We haven’t seen scientific studies yet that document heart health changes in the UK, but these are multi-factorial diseases, and sodium is one factor among many.”