FDA guidelines take aim at excessive sodium consumption


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A little more than a week after announcing its plans to update the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued draft guidelines urging the food industry to cut the amount of salt in packaged and restaurant food. By doing so, they hope to limit the health risks that result from excess sodium consumption.

Average sodium intake in the U.S. is approximately 3,400 mg/day. The short- and long-term voluntary targets are designed to help Americans gradually reduce sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day — a level recommended by leading experts as well as several scientific studies. The targets are also intended to complement many existing efforts by food manufacturers, restaurants and food service operations to reduce sodium in foods.

Americans consume almost 50% more sodium than what most experts recommend. One in three individuals has high blood pressure, which has been linked to diets high in sodium and is a major risk factor cause of heart disease and stroke. That number climbs to one in two African Americans and even includes one in 10 children aged 8-17.


A closer look at the numbers

You may not necessarily be reaching for the salt shaker, but that doesn't mean you're not consuming too much sodium. The majority of sodium intake comes from processed and prepared foods.

When sodium intake increases, blood pressure increases, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke — two leading causes of death in the United States. In some studies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers have estimated that lowering U.S. sodium intake by about 40% over the next decade could save 500,000 lives and nearly $100 billion in healthcare costs.

“Many Americans want to reduce sodium in their diets, but that’s hard to do when much of it is in everyday products we buy in stores and restaurants,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said. “Today’s announcement is about putting power back in the hands of consumers, so that they can better control how much salt is in the food they eat and improve their health.”

The FDA hopes food manufacturers whose products make up a significant portion of national sales in one or more categories and restaurant chains that are national and regional in scope to adopt these guidelines. The organization estimates that less than 10% of packaged foods account for more than 80% of sales. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, about 50% of every food dollar goes to food consumed outside the home. Therefore, the draft voluntary guidance also covers common foods served in restaurants and other food service establishments.

 “The totality of the scientific evidence supports sodium reduction from current intake levels,” said Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Experts at the Institute of Medicine have concluded that reducing sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day can significantly help Americans reduce their blood pressure and ultimately prevent hundreds of thousands of premature illnesses and deaths. Because the majority of sodium in our diets comes from processed and prepared foods, consumers are challenged in lowering their sodium intake themselves.”

Included in the draft guidance is a common system for defining and measuring progress on reducing sodium in the U.S. food supply. The approach is to establish reasonable, voluntary reduction targets for the majority of processed and prepared foods, placing foods in nearly 150 categories from bakery products to soups. The draft targets factor in data on consumer preferences, as well as current industry efforts to reduce sodium. The FDA is confident that the short-term targets, which seek to decrease sodium intake to about 3,000 mg per day in two years' time, are readily achievable. In fact, many foods, such as top-selling pretzel products, have already met the short-term target.

“We believe that the time is now to engage in a national dialogue on the problem of excess sodium. Publishing these targets is an important step in that dialogue,” added Dr. Mayne.


10 ways you can reduce your sodium consumption

If you gradually reduce the amount of sodium you consume, your taste for it will adjust. We really are resilient creatures that way. In fact, as you decrease it, you will very likely find that — over time — you may not even miss it!

Here are 10 ways the FDA encourages you to take your health and your future into your own hands and cut back on sodium:

  1. Read the Nutrition Facts Label to see how much sodium is in foods and beverages. Most people should consume less than 100% of the Daily Value (or less than 2,400 mg) of sodium each day. Check the label to compare sodium in different brands of foods and beverages and choose those lower in sodium.
  2. Prepare your own food when you can. Limit packaged sauces, mixes and “instant” products (including flavored rice, instant noodles and ready-made pasta).
  3. Add flavor without adding sodium. Limit the amount of salt you add to foods when cooking, baking or at the table. Try no-salt seasoning blends and herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor to your food.
  4. Buy fresh. Choose fresh meat, poultry and seafood, rather than processed varieties. Also, check the package on fresh meat and poultry to see if salt water or saline has been added.
  5. Watch your veggies. Buy fresh, frozen (no sauce or seasoning), or low sodium or no-salt-added canned vegetables.
  6. Rinse sodium-containing canned foods, such as beans, tuna and vegetables before eating. This removes some of the sodium.
  7. “Unsalt” your snacks. Choose low sodium or no-salt-added nuts, seeds and snack products (such as chips and pretzels) — or have carrot or celery sticks instead.
  8. Consider your condiments. Sodium in condiments can add up. Choose light or reduced sodium condiments, add oil and vinegar to salads rather than bottled dressings and use only a small amount of seasoning from flavoring packets instead of the entire packet.
  9. Reduce your portion size. Less food means less sodium. Prepare smaller portions at home and consume less when eating out — choose smaller sizes, split an entrée with a friend or take part of your meal home.
  10. Make lower-sodium choices at restaurants. Ask for your meal to be prepared without salt and request that sauces and salad dressings be served “on the side,” then use less of them. If a restaurant item or meal includes a claim about its nutrient content, such as “low sodium” or “low fat,” then nutrition information to support that claim is required to be available at the point of purchase. In addition, as of December 1, 2016, many chain restaurants (and other places selling restaurant-type food) will be required to provide written information on the nutrient content of standard menu items, including the amount of sodium.