The Food and Drug Administration is asking food manufacturers and restaurants to reduce the salt content in their products over the next two and a half years with the goal of reducing Americans’ overall sodium intake by 12%.
The general recommendation, announced on Wednesday, is expected to cover a wide variety of foods – from chain restaurant meals to processed foods on grocery store shelves and even baby food.
“What we would like to see is for the food industry to gradually reduce the sodium content” of the most common foods, Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the FDA, told NBC News.
The goal, said Woodcock, is to reduce rates of heart disease, the nation’s No.1 killer. Reducing sodium in the diet “would ultimately have a major impact on hypertension, heart disease and stroke,” she said.
Current dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. This equates to about a teaspoon of table salt.
But the average person in the United States consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day, according to the FDA.
The new recommendations aim to reduce that amount by 12%, to 3,000 mg per day, Woodcock said. This is the equivalent of consuming 60 teaspoons of salt less per year.
While this goal does not meet the recommended daily allowance of 2,300 mg of sodium, external experts have said that counseling is a good first step in tackling high blood pressure, which affects nearly half of all people. American adults.
Wednesday’s action finalizes interim guidelines the agency released in 2016 on how much salt companies should add to food; the food industry largely ignored the guidelines.
New the recommendations are non-binding, which means that companies are not required to make such reductions.
Woodcock said the FDA will closely monitor the industry over the next several years, rewarding companies that comply. It wasn’t clear what the rewards would be on Wednesday, and Woodcock didn’t say whether the FDA would take action against companies that aren’t cutting sodium.
But experts said the federal push could increase the likelihood that most major manufacturers will actually take action.
Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, said: “The good thing about the government setting that goal and putting the pressure on is that you have a better chance than everyone else. world make the changes. . “
The guidelines will apply to more than 160 categories of processed, packaged and prepared foods – such as tomato sauce, dairy products and breakfast cereals – as well as chain restaurant meals, Woodcock said. Different categories of foods will have different target sodium levels.
In a statement, the National Restaurant Association said it has worked with the FDA on the new guidelines and “continue to provide options to meet the health needs and wants of customers.”
Public health experts overwhelmingly applauded the guidelines.
American Heart Association President Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones said it was “an incredibly exciting time” that should help people achieve healthier sodium levels in their diets. This in turn could reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, he said.
Dr Peter Lurie, chairman of one of the foremost food industry watch groups, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, said the FDA guidelines would likely be “the intervention the most effective that the US government can take. at the present moment. “
The CSPI has been pushing for lower levels of added sodium in foods for decades. “While all natural foods contain small amounts of sodium,” he wrote in a letter to the federal government last month, “over 70 percent of the sodium the average American consumes comes from packaged foods. and restaurants “.
In addition, much of the sodium in a typical diet comes from foods that are not necessarily considered “salty,” such as bread, spaghetti sauces and salad dressings.
“There is very little the average consumer can do,” Lurie said. “The only way to have a significant impact on sodium intake is to blame industry.”
The effects of salt on the body
Consuming too much salt is often associated with high blood pressure and heart problems.
But the consequences don’t start in the heart, Lloyd-Jones said, but rather in the kidneys.
The main function of the kidneys is to filter wastes and toxins from the blood and maintain an appropriate level of fluid in the body.
As more sodium is consumed, the kidneys are less able to get rid of the excess. As sodium builds up, the kidneys become less efficient at ridding the body of excess fluid, which leads to high blood pressure. When blood pressure is high, the heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. This, in turn, increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
Elisabetta Politi, registered dietitian at Duke University Lifestyle & Weight Management Center, said the new guidelines were “a good step in the right direction.”
Based on her experience with clients, it only takes a few days for a person’s taste buds to acclimatize to foods that contain much less sodium, she said.
Politi said that a week after starting her program, her clients balked at the salty taste of their previous meals. Plus, she said, her clients’ blood pressure tended to drop within days of cutting out the salt.
“The data is clear,” Politi said. “Lives could be saved if we encourage people to eat less sodium. “
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