Americans are eating too much salt. So the FDA wants food manufacturers to cut back on sodium.
In a sweeping recommendation announced Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration is urging food manufacturers and restaurants to reduce the salt in their products in an effort to cut Americans’ sodium intake by 12%.
Ranging from condiments to potato chips and deli meats to store-bought bakery items, the voluntary recommendations apply to 163 categories of processed, packaged and prepared foods, which accounts for most of the sodium in Americans’ diets, the FDA said in its announcement.
Over the next 2 1/2 years, the agency aims to cut average sodium intake from 3,400 to 3,000 milligrams a day, which is still significantly more than the federally recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams. That's equivalent to one teaspoon a day, which can be found in about two slices of pizza, 20 chicken nuggets, or two tablespoons of soy sauce.
Limiting sodium in one’s diet can help prevent health problems like hypertension and cardiovascular disease that results “in hundreds of thousands of lives lost and billions in annual health care costs,” the FDA said.
The agency added the pandemic has amplified the need to reduce sodium intake because people with many of these health issues, including cardiovascular disease, are at an increased risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms.
“The dichotomy of living in a fast paced world, of eating on the go, relying on packaged foods and eating mindlessly inevitably leads to a diet that is high in salt, sugar and fat,” said Sharon Zarabi, registered dietitian and program director at Katz Institute for Women’s Health in New York. “This is the trifecta to chronic disease.”
The FDA said sodium reductions would have to be gradual so that people don’t keep turning to the higher sodium options they’re now used to. As it monitors progress, the FDA will keep issuing targets to move closer to the recommended sodium limit.
“We know that even these modest reductions made slowly over the next few years will substantially decrease diet-related diseases,” the FDA said in its Wednesday announcement.
“This iterative approach will help support gradual reductions in sodium levels broadly across the food supply so that consumers' tastes adjust, health outcomes improve and no one company or category of food is singled out or scrutinized,” the agency added, noting that similar approaches have been successful in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Much of American's sodium intake comes from deli meat sandwiches, pizza, burritos and tacos, soups, savory snacks like chips and popcorn, pasta dishes, burgers and egg dishes, the FDA said. About 70% of the sodium in Americans’ diets comes from packaged food or food from restaurants.
That makes it difficult for people to make changes on their own to reduce their sodium intake, Zarabi said.
“Until the FDA and regulating agencies step in, we will have an uphill battle,” she told USA TODAY.
"This is a great first step, but still does not solve our metabolic crisis," she added. "Suggesting is not mandating and food manufacturers need more regulations in our country. "
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The human body requires small amounts of sodium but Zarabi said half the sodium Americans consume “serves no purpose."
“The food industry uses excessive amounts of salt to preserve and increase product shelf life and increase palatability, which encourages us to consume more of the product, hence creating loyal consumers and excess intake — all at the expense of our health,” she said.
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The FDA sought feedback from the food industry, including the National Restaurant Association and the American Frozen Food Institute, for a 2016 draft of its guidance.
Experts say some companies have resisted reduced sodium targets, and the effectiveness of the guidance depends on how the FDA will monitor progress.
Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said voluntary guidelines can pressure companies to make changes to avoid stricter regulations.
“If it turns out that the impact is not what we would hope, I think it’s back to the drawing board, and mandatory cuts are on the table,” he said.
How to reduce sodium in your diet
The FDA encourages individual action by talking to doctors, reading food labels, asking for nutrition information at restaurants, and choosing lower sodium options.
►Eat more fresh foods like fruits and vegetables, which are naturally low in sodium.
►Buy fresh meat rather than lunch meat, bacon, hot dogs, sausage and ham. Check labels or ask your butcher to see if your poultry and meat has been injected with solutions containing sodium.
►Prepare your own food when you can rather than relying on prepackaged, prepared, instant or restaurant foods.
►Try seasonings like herbs and spices that have no salt to add flavor to meals.
►Rinse canned foods like beans, tuna and vegetables to remove some sodium before eating.
►Choose low-sodium products. Swap snacks like chips and pretzels with nuts without added salt, carrots or celery. Swap bottled dressings with adding oil and vinegar to salads, and watch your condiment consumption.
►Try to avoid products with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving.
►Learn the lingo used on food labels. Reduced sodium foods can still have a significant amount of sodium. Here's a handy guide from the FDA.
Contributing: The Associated Press