What Do the FDA’s New Sodium Guidelines Mean?

man eating salty food, enormous deli sandwich
June 27, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

In 1978—38 years ago—the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to limit the amount of sodium in foods, and to require the sodium content of packaged foods to be cited on the label.

The respected nonprofit watchdog got a simple answer.

No.

CSPI tried twice more, in 1991 and 2005, to get the FDA to call for reduced sodium in our food.

No and no.

Finally, in 2015, this overdue headline:

“FDA Issues Draft Guidance to Food Industry for Voluntarily Reducing Sodium in Processed and Commercially Prepared Food”

Draft guidance?  Voluntarily?” A bit limp, but better than 38 years of a blind eye.

Especially considering what’s at stake.

Salt and sodium—defined and de-confused

“Salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably—wrongly.

Salt is the naturally occurring chemical sodium chloride. It’s widely used to flavor and preserve food.

Sodium is one of the many minerals found in salt—about 40 percent of its total composition.

Though sodium is the FDA’s target, it’s not a natural-born killer.

The killer is too much sodium, which can exacerbate high blood pressure, which in turn dramatically increases the risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, and more.

Talk about too much—Americans consume around 3,400 mg of sodium daily (about 1.5 teaspoons), more than 75 percent of which is in processed food. That’s almost 50 percent more than conservative experts say is safe.

And that’s serious: reducing sodium intake by 40 percent over the next decade could save an (again) conservatively estimated 500,000 lives and $100 billion in healthcare costs.

Jump ahead of the FDA

The FDA’s proposed goal is to cut average daily adult sodium consumption to 2,300 mg.

What a tragedy that these guidelines weren’t in place, and enforced, 38 years ago.

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Still, any effort to reduce consumption is laudable.

Regulatory agencies can play a role … over a very long term.

But you can easily do it yourself, today.

What should you do?

Say no to processed foods.

It’s that simple. To consume less sodium, avoid over-salted, over-processed food when dining out.  Even top-tier restaurants are likely to over-salt—because most people are so used to it.  If the salt content of a dish isn’t listed on the menu, ask your server what it is, or request no added salt.

Unfortunately, you also have to avoid processed foods when shopping to cook at home.  Even the store-bought ingredients you prepare from scratch are likely to include processed ingredients that push the dish over the healthy sodium limit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, says nearly 50 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from these commonly processed foods you’ll find in any supermarket:

  • Breads, rolls
  • Cheese, natural and processed
  • Cold cuts and cured meats e.g., deli or packaged ham or turkey
  • Prepared meat dishes, e.g., beef stew, chili, meat loaf
  • Prepared pasta dishes e.g., lasagna, pasta salad, spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Pizza
  • Canned or frozen vegetables
  • Sandwiches, e.g., hamburgers, hot dogs, subs
  • Savory snacks, e.g., chips, crackers, popcorn, pretzels
  • Soups

Many processed foods in your supermarket admit their guilt.  Learn the signals—if there’s a Nutrition Facts label on the package, for example, it’s been processed.  And take special note that even foods labeled “all natural” or “whole grain” can still be processed. Read the label for sodium content.

But don’t despair. Not every product in your shopping cart will be processed, and many that are processed contain acceptable amounts of sodium—unseasoned frozen vegetables, for example.

The detective work is on you—when there’s more than one kind of frozen peas, check the Nutrition Facts labels and choose the option with the lowest sodium.

Of course, choosing only fresh, local, organic foods to cook at home is obviously the optimal solution.  It’s not always easy, but your health is worth it.

Just don’t turn a healthy food bad by adding too much salt.

Is sea salt the answer?

Sea salt is the big thing of the moment. Fancy chefs and in-house foodies love it for its different colors and (slightly) different tastes.  Some sea salt contains minerals lacking in regular salt, but not in health-affecting amounts.

I confess—a sprinkle of purple-blue Icelandic blueberry sea salt on a nice salmon steak is really pretty.

But it’s still salt – it contains just as much sodium as table salt. So, too much is too much.

And no matter what the source, the high blood pressure that comes with too much is still a deadly health threat.

Shop smart and eat smart.

References

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