F.D.A. Issues Voluntary Guidelines to Reduce Salt Intake

·4 min read
Photo credit: Floriana - Getty Images
Photo credit: Floriana - Getty Images


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  • The Food and Drug Administration is encouraging food manufacturers, chain restaurants, and foodservice operators of prepared foods to lower their sodium use.

  • These changes will aim to lower the average American's daily sodium intake from 3,400 mg to 3,000 mg per day.

  • High sodium intake can lead to chronic issues like heart disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement encouraging the food industry to decrease its use of salt in an attempt to make Americans healthier. The statement came from Janet Woodcock, M.D., the acting commissioner of food and drugs for the FDA and Susan T. Mayne, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The request from the FDA is voluntary and is targeted at food manufacturers, chain restaurants, and foodservice operators of processed, packaged, and prepared foods. The guidance aims to decrease average sodium intake from 3,400 milligrams to 3,000 milligrams daily, about a 12% reduction over the next two and half years. This is still above the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends a limit of 2,300 milligrams per day for those 14 and older.

Why is the FDA recommending changes now?

These changes come as a response to the growing health issues of Americans, who are “facing a growing epidemic of preventable, diet-related conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity,” according to the statement.

High sodium intake can put people at risk for fluid retention, heart conditions (like an enlarged heart or heart failure), high blood pressure, kidney disease, and kidney stones, warns Melissa Prest D.C.N., R.D.N., a Chicago-based dietitian and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Limiting certain nutrients, such as sodium, in our diets plays a crucial role in preventing diseases like hypertension and cardiovascular disease that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minority groups,” the FDA wrote in the statement.

Research shows that people consume 50% more sodium than recommended, on average, and more than 95% of children aged two to 13 years old exceed recommended limits of sodium in their age groups, according to the FDA statement.. Packaged, processed, and restaurant foods make up an estimated 70% of the sodium we eat, the statement says.

“The current average sodium intake of 3,400 mg per day is clearly much higher than the recommendations, and a lot of that comes down to the food choices we make,” Prest says. “The more processed our food is, the higher the sodium level will be. More than 70% of the sodium in our diet comes from processed foods and restaurant meals; whereas, home-cooked meals contribute to about 10%.”

What high-sodium foods should you look out for?

About 40% of the sodium in the American diet comes from common foods like deli meat sandwiches, pizza, burritos and tacos, soups, savory snacks (like chips), poultry, pasta dishes, burgers, and egg dishes, according to the FDA.

Other foods, like pickles, cereal, bread, cheeses, and sauces can hide high amounts of sodium as well, says Sarah Maver, R.D., M.P.H., director of Nutrition and Wellness for Chartwells K12. “It's these multiple servings of processed foods that put us over the limit. Another common source of hidden sodium is in condiments like soy sauce and salad dressing, which can easily derail an otherwise low-sodium dish,” she says.

The bottom line

Experts are excited to see the changes coming—even if they don’t quite hit the upper limit target. “It is clear that we are consuming too much salt, and we should work to lower intake to be closer to the recommendations of 2,300 mg per day,” Prest says. “Since most of the sodium we consume is from salt that is added during food processing, it makes sense to focus on how much salt is being added to food products and restaurant meals. Ultimately, this is a positive health benefit for the consumer.”

Efforts to lower Americans’ overall sodium intake don’t stop here. The FDA hopes to revisit and edit these guidelines once current goals have been met. “In the future, we plan to issue revised, subsequent targets to further lower the sodium content incrementally and continue to help reduce sodium intake,” the statement says.

The FDA hopes that a gradual drop in sodium will be most successful for consumers and producers, ultimately changing the demand for heavily salted foods. “This interactive 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 statement says.

As we wait for these voluntary guidelines to take effect there are things we can do on a daily basis to lower our overall sodium intake. Choosing whole foods over processed foods, cooking more meals at home, and using herbs, spices, and vinegar to flavor meals over salt are all great options, Prest says. Additionally, getting in the habit of reading food labels and comparing sodium content in products when you shop can make a big difference, notes Maver.

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