Companies including H.J. Heinz Co., Kraft Foods Inc. and Starbucks will commit to the voluntary National Salt Reduction Initiative, a public-private partnership initiated by New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Monday.
"Sodium is a major cause of high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to heart attack and stroke," Bloomberg said.
Mark Broadhurst, director of corporate affairs for Mars Foods, said the company would cut the salt in its Uncle Ben's flavored rice products by 25 percent over five years.
"When it comes to reducing sodium, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere," Broadhurst said.
Lanette Kovachi, corporate dietitian for Subway, said the sandwich chain has already cut sodium by 30 percent in its European outlets and is working on reducing salt in its U.S. restaurants.
"We're actively working with our food suppliers to reduce sodium in all of our menu items," she said.
Heinz had announced that the company would reduce sodium by 15 percent in all the ketchup it sells in the U.S. starting May 1.
Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said the move is part of the company's ongoing commitment to sodium reduction. Heinz has already cut sodium in Bagel Bites frozen pizza snacks by more than 20 percent, for example.
Most health organizations recommend a range of 1,500 to 2,400 milligrams of salt a day for healthy adults. Consuming too much salt can lead to health problems including high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
"If we reduced our sodium intake to recommended levels, we would prevent 44,000 to 92,000 deaths per year in the United States and save $10 billion to $24 billion in health care costs per year," New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said.
But Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, a trade association, said the initiative was "not based on sound science."
"The Italians eat about 40 percent more sodium than Americans, yet they have better cardiovascular health than Americans," Roman said. "So it's not the sodium. It's an overall diet high in fruits and vegetables."
The salt reduction initiative has set a goal of cutting the salt in 62 categories of packaged foods and 25 categories of restaurant foods by 25 percent over five years. That would lead to a reduction in the nation's salt intake by 20 percent, health officials said.
The program is modeled on a similar initiative in the United Kingdom, where food makers have reduced salt levels by 40 percent or more in some products.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for Los Angeles County, who attended the New York news conference, said consumers would not miss the salt.
"People really won't notice the difference in terms of taste, but your body will notice it," he said. "Your blood pressure will be lower. Your risk of getting high blood pressure will be reduced."