FDA Releases New Salt Guidelines: How to Slash Your Sodium Intake
By Lisa Rapaport
Even if the food industry doesn’t adopt the agency’s recommendations, you can help reduce your risk for heart disease by learning to become a sodium sleuth.
In an effort to curb Americans’ sodium intake, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week called on chain restaurants and food manufacturers to voluntarily slash the salt content in their products. The goal: to reduce Americans’ typical daily sodium intake from 3,400 milligrams (mg) to 3,000 mg, a roughly 12 percent decrease.
The recommendations would still put Americans’ daily sodium consumption far above the U.S. dietary guidelines’ recommended limit of 2,300 mg for people ages 14 and up. Yet the FDA said in a statement that “even these modest reductions made slowly over the next few years will substantially decrease diet-related diseases.”
Even if the food industry doesn’t embrace the guidelines, the FDA’s move is a step in the right direction, says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, MPH, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
“Most Americans will still be far above recommended intakes, but this will still save tens of thousands of lives per year,” Dr. Mozaffarian says.
Your Body on Salt
Not all salt is bad. The body needs about 500 mg of sodium daily for essential functions, like conducting nerve impulses, contracting and relaxing muscles, and maintaining a proper balance of water and minerals, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Yet the high-sodium diet many people eat puts too much strain on the kidneys, allowing sodium and water to accumulate in the bloodstream and forcing the heart to work harder to pump an increased volume of blood through the body. Eventually, this leads to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, kidney disease, and blindness, according to the FDA.
Chronic Disease and Salt Intake: What Are the Stats?
A previous study found that sodium intake above 2,000 mg a day was responsible for an estimated 1 in 10 deaths from cardiovascular causes worldwide.
Another study calculated the health benefits to Americans from reducing daily sodium intake by 1,200 mg, roughly the amount needed to bring our salt consumption within limits recommended by dietary guidelines. Each year, a reduction of this magnitude could prevent up to 120,000 new cases of heart disease, 66,000 strokes, 99,000 heart attacks, and 92,000 deaths, the analysis found.
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Food Culprits High in Salt
A single teaspoon of table salt contains 2,300 mg sodium. And the 3,400 mg of sodium people typically consume each day equals about 1.5 teaspoons of salt.
But 70 percent of the sodium in American diets doesn’t come from the salt shaker on kitchen tables. Instead, it’s found in packaged, processed and restaurant foods, according to the FDA.
In fact, about 40 percent of the sodium in American diets comes from just a handful of foods, the FDA notes:
Deli meat sandwiches
Burritos and tacos
Savory Snacks (chips, crackers, popcorn)
Pasta mixed dishes
Egg dishes and omelets
Reductions in sodium in all of these packaged and prepared meals could make it easier for Americans to cut back on salt without making drastic changes to their eating habits, the FDA said.
“Hidden salt is everywhere in the typical American diet, and it adds up quickly,” says Kelly Kennedy, RDN, staff nutritionist at Everyday Health. “For the most part, people are aware that it’s in processed and packaged foods, but may not know just how much they are eating in a typical day.”
What may surprise consumers is that foods that are high in sodium may not taste salty, says Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Health in New York City.
For example, a Dunkin’ Donut’s glazed donut contains 270 mg of sodium and a 16-ounce Caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks has around 230 mg of sodium, Heller says.
A 16-ounce can of traditional Progresso chicken noodle soup has 1,510 mg of sodium.
And salt is lurking in meals at chain restaurants, Heller notes. A chicken avocado melt at Panera has 1,990 mg of sodium, for example, and a five-piece order of handcrafted chicken tenders at Popeye’s has 3,035 mg of sodium.
Cooking at home also isn’t a foolproof way to limit sodium in your diet unless you carefully read the labels on the ingredients you use to prepare your meals. That’s because sodium often lurks in pantry staples like canned tomatoes, salad dressings, and jarred or bottled sauces.
While it’s hypothetically possible for a person who eats mostly whole foods to have a naturally low-sodium diet, the reality is most people don’t eat or cook in a way that makes this happen, Kennedy says.
And when people dine out, even restaurants considered healthy may still be offering us foods loaded with sodium, Kennedy adds.
“What’s worse, salt is even added to foods that we would generally consider whole foods,” Kennedy says.
Chicken breasts, for example, are often injected with a sodium solution that helps maintain their moisture and adds weight to the final product, Kennedy notes. “Unfortunately, it also greatly increases the amount of sodium that the consumer gets in their meal.”
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How to Cut Back on Salt in Your Diet
One way to reduce sodium is to eat less when you go out, and consider ordering sauces or dressings on the side, Kennedy suggests. And when you cook at home, try to make sauces and dressing from scratch and limit how many processed or packaged ingredients go into the recipe.
People can also reduce their sodium intake by carefully reading nutrition labels on packaged foods when they’re at the grocery store. Here’s how the FDA recommends reading the labels:
The Daily value (DV) for sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day.
The percent DV shows how much of the maximum recommended amount of sodium is in a single serving
Check the total number of servings in the package to determine how much sodium you’re really consuming
Aim for less than 5 percent DV for sodium if you’re looking for low-sodium foods
Limit or avoid foods with 20 percent DV or more for sodium