Sharon Palmer, RD
Trimming trans fats and refined carbs is so yesterday. Today it’s all about skimming salt.
Sodium intake is foremost in the minds of U.S. nutrition policy makers. The reason? Despite public health experts nagging us for years, we continue to consume way too much sodium, which is linked to increased blood pressure.
“If you lower your blood pressure, you can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. We are talking about saving tens of thousands of lives by decreasing sodium intake,” according to Janelle Peralez-Gunn, M.P.H., R.D., public health analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How much sodium are you supposed to get?
In 2005, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC,) a panel of experts that sifts through the science in order to make nutrition recommendations for the American public every five years, recommended a daily sodium intake of less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) for the general adult population.
They also suggested that certain high-risk groups, including hypertensive individuals, African-Americans, and middle-aged and older adults, would benefit from reducing their sodium intake even further to 1,500 mg per day.
This high-risk group now comprises about 70 percent of U.S. adults, leading the DGAC to suggest a sodium goal of 1,500 mg per day for the general population in the 2010 recommendations.
The problem is we’re still eating as much of the salty stuff as ever—more than 3,400 mg per day on average. That’s a far cry from 1,500 mg per day, or even 2,300 mg per day. So, Congress requested that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) develop strategies to reduce the country’s sodium intake to healthy levels.
And where did the IOM train its focus? On the food and restaurant industry.
A salty food and restaurant industry
In its April 2010 report, the IOM called for new government standards for an acceptable level of sodium in foods from manufacturers and restaurants so that, over time, the amount of sodium in the food supply might decrease and hopefully go unnoticed as taste buds became adjusted to less salt.
It’s easy to understand why the government wants the food and restaurant industries to do their part in helping us trim sodium. We consume more and more prepared foods—from convenience and snack foods in supermarkets to restaurant and take-out meals.
In fact, the natural sodium content of foods adds up to only 10 percent of our average total intake, with another five to 10 percent coming from the salt shaker. That means the remaining amount comes from processed and prepared foods.
According to Peralez-Gunn, data indicate the top sources of sodium intake in the U.S. are yeast breads, chicken and chicken mixed dishes, pizza, pasta and pasta dishes, cold cuts, condiments, Mexican mixed dishes, sausage, franks, bacon, ribs, regular cheese, grain-based desserts, soups, and beef and beef mixed dishes.
The U.S. isn’t the first country to take on sodium in the food industry. The U.K. came up with a sodium initiative back in 2003 that aimed to reduce sodium in the food supply by one-third between 2005 and 2010. As a result, food companies in the U.K. cooperated with major reductions in sodium content that led to a 10 percent overall reduction in sodium intake in the general population. The U.S. is now using this concept as a model to help win its own war against sodium. Canada, Australia, Finland, France, Ireland and New Zealand also have launched national initiatives to help reduce the salt in food.
The food industry responds
Sure, in the past some food manufacturers made a few, largely unsuccessful, voluntary attempts to skim salt from processed foods. But today’s emphasis on sodium cutbacks in the food industry has resulted in some powerful changes.
“There is already a tremendous amount of effort to reduce sodium. Some companies have reduced sodium by 10 to 25 percent already,” reports Peralez-Gunn.
The National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) is a coalition of cities, states and health organizations working to help food companies and restaurants reduce the amount of salt in their products. Their goal is to reduce Americans' salt intake by 20 percent over five years by developing targets to guide company salt reductions in 62 categories of packaged food and 25 categories of restaurant food.
Sharon Palmer, RD
Sharon Palmer, RD, is a nationally recognized nutrition expert, writer and editor of the award-winning health newsletter Environmental Nutrition. She is author of the upcoming book, The Powerful Plants Diet (The Experiment, 2012) and over 750 articles for a variety of publications.