Cut the salt in prepared and packaged food, U.S. urges makers and sellers

friesandsalt-300x200Americans of all ages adore fast food and prepared meals, but one of the lures is these tasty items are loaded with salt. Now federal regulators have proposed new guidelines that they say could save millions of lives by reducing the salt content of commercially prepared and packaged foods.

The Food and Drug Administration’s standards, directed at food that flies out of restaurants, as well as from grocery freezers and shelves, seeks to get manufacturers, restaurants, and food services to help people cut their sodium intake by 12% in the next 2.5 years.

That may seem like a slight amount, but it could have significant effects, the New York Times reported:

“That goal translates into 3,000 milligrams of salt — slightly more than a teaspoon — compared to the 3,400 milligrams that Americans typically consume in a day. Health experts offered modest praise for the new guidance, saying it would help draw attention to the problem of excess sodium, but many expressed concern that voluntary measures might not be enough to compel change in an industry that often bridles at regulatory oversight. America’s love affair with salty foods has been linked to alarmingly high rates of high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. More than 4 in 10 American adults have high blood pressure; among black adults, that number is 6 in 10, the FDA said. Much of the excess sodium that Americans consume, about 70% comes from processed and packaged food and meals served at restaurants, according to researchers.”

Medical scientists have warned the public for some time to slash their sodium consumption, but it isn’t easy to do so — not just because many eaters say salt makes food taste better. They also simply may not be aware how much sodium many common foods are stuffed with, as NPR reported:

“More than 70% of the sodium that Americans consume comes from packaged and prepared foods, rather than from the saltshakers in their homes, and there are some surprising contributors. Take a sandwich: Each slice of bread can contain 200 mg, or more, depending on what brand you buy. Add in some deli turkey, and it’s easy to add another 650 mg … Sodium content in packaged foods varies a great deal by brand, with a slice of frozen cheese pizza, for example, ranging between 370 mg and 730 mg of sodium. Even the foods we would use to make a pizza at home, such as canned tomato sauce and pepperoni, can have high sodium levels …”

Experts say that individual consumers can see benefits by changing to “light,” rather than regular table salt. The light formulations contain less sodium chloride and more potassium chloride, which can be helpful to individuals seeking to reduce their blood pressure — especially if they will boost the taste of their meals with herbs and spices.

The New York Times reported that the FDA guidelines got an endorsement from Xavier Becerra, the head of the Health and Human Services agency and one of the federal government’s highest-ranking Latinos. He said controlling sodium could be a way to address painful disparities in the health of communities of color:

“Referring to an aunt and an uncle whose premature deaths, he said, were linked to high blood pressure, he pointed out that low-income Americans whose diets are heavy in sodium-laden processed food are especially vulnerable. ‘The human and economic costs of diet-related diseases are staggering, and hundreds of thousands of Americans are learning that the hard way as they contract these chronic diseases and face the consequences of poor nutrition,’ he said.”

Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA’s acting chief, said federal officials have chosen to make its sodium guidelines voluntary for now, because other nations have successfully followed this path to cut their populations’ sodium intake. The task will take time and officials expressed optimism that the food industry will be helpful in achieving the national salt reduction.

Industry groups said they were consulted on the guidelines, and they asserted that they have sought slowly to offer their customers increasing and significant options, including no- and low-salt options.

Food safety advocates said they were pleased that the agency, finally, acted on a significant health concern.

The Washington Post reported that the Biden Administration is reversing course on sodium reduction, compared with the actions of its predecessor, especially regarding child nutrition:

“During the Trump Administration, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue weakened school nutrition standards for sodium, fat and fiber, all of which had been tightened during the Obama Administration. Perdue cited food waste and nonparticipation as key rationales for the shift. And since the pandemic, the federal government has relaxed school nutrition standards in an effort to accommodate supply chain problems that have left school nutrition administrators scrambling.”

Not good. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal with the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.

The areas of diet and nutrition have become especially fraught, full of conflicts of interest, bad players, and outright profiteering hokum. It is difficult to the max to control for myriad factors and to study with rigor people and their eating habits and dietary outcomes. That has not stopped wild theorizers, scam artists, and the misguided for a long time from blowing smoke at the public with wild claims (consider, for example, the total flakiness of cereal magnate John Kellogg).

But experts have provided plenty of evidence about the health harms caused by our excess consumption of salt and sugar, and we need to take urgent and appropriate steps to safeguard our wellness. Preventing serious health conditions is far better and cheaper than medically treating them. We have much work to do to improve our diets and our health, including by giving up more than a few spoonfuls of salt and sugar.

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