The United States lists sodium on nutrition labels while salt is more common in the European Union. Salt and sodium are not the same, and a standardized term would only cause confusion.
The United States delegation to next week’s Codex Committee on Food Labeling meeting has said it will push for sodium, rather than salt, to become the international labeling standard. But this is an unnecessary debate; if consumers understand a particular term in one country but not another, homogenized terms will only dilute existing public health messages.
Internationally standardized sodium labels may be useful for multinational food manufacturers, but that’s not who they are intended to serve.
Part of the dispute centers on the fact that the nutrient is sodium, not salt, and sodium is also present in other food ingredients, including common leavening agents such as bicarbonate of soda and baking powder. Although this is true, the vast majority of the sodium we consume comes from salt. Sodium may be well understood by American consumers, but if food makers switched to labeling sodium rather than salt in the EU, even the most health-conscious Europeans would be unable to name their recommended maximum daily intake, and that is surely counterproductive.
The UK’s ‘eat no more than 6g a day’ (about 2,400mg sodium) salt campaign, along with action from food manufacturers, has seen great success – average daily salt consumption there is 8.6g, down from 9.5g a decade ago.
For those aiming to reduce their salt intake, European governments could spend time and money reeducating the public that, actually, the nutrient is sodium, but this seems a huge waste of resources to simply assuage a taste for pedantry.
Even within the United States, standardized sodium recommendations have proved elusive. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a daily maximum of 2,300mg of sodium for those without hypertension risk factors (1,500mg for those at risk), while food label daily values are based on a 2,400mg maximum. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association recommends that everyone should aim for less than 1,500mg.
The European Union, perhaps more accustomed to the inherent difficulties of finding a single solution to every labeling issue, has taken a more conciliatory approach to the upcoming Codex meeting.
In a letter detailing its position on nutrition labeling, the EU’s Codex delegation said it supports the declaration of sodium expressed as salt on nutrition labels, but added that if no consensus can be reached, the decision should be left to individual countries.
“The EU believes that it is important for the terminology in nutrition labeling to be coherent with the public health messages in the country or region concerned,” the document said.
Currently, the EU allows for labeling of sodium in a (voluntary) nutrition information panel, while front-of-pack labeling tends to focus on salt content as a proportion of daily intake. This is an area of ongoing debate in the region. Let’s allow the debate to run its course and hope that clarity for consumers remains top of mind.
The Codex Committee on Food Labeling should be applauded for finding international common ground on many issues – but when it comes to salt vs. sodium, if it works, don’t break it.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.