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.
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.
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: