Even Your Taste Buds May Not Know: Culprits Include Cereal, Sliced Bread and Roast Chicken (but Not Chocolate).Erica Beckman
Adults consume more than 3,400 mgs of sodium on average.
Nearly 90% of adults consume more salt than U.S. dietary guidelines recommend. Now, federal officials are considering making those guidelines even tougher to follow.
Eating too much sodium, a key component of salt, can contribute to high blood pressure, a major risk for most people as they age because it can lead to heart disease and other health problems. But cutting sodium from the diet is difficult, mainly because people often don’t know it’s there. More than three-quarters of the sodium people consume comes from processed and restaurant foods. And much of the sodium we eat is in foods that don’t necessarily taste salty, like packaged bread and chicken dishes.
Nearly 90% of adults consume more salt than U.S. dietary guidelines recommend. We take a look at a typical diet to see where sodium hides and how Americans can make healthier food choices.
Salt is the latest front in the battle to get Americans to eat a healthier diet. Previous efforts have focused on cutting down on sugar, to fight obesity, and reducing fat, for a healthier heart. After four decades of unsuccessfully nudging Americans to cut salt in their diets only to see them eat more of it, government officials are intensifying their efforts.
An advisory committee working on new U.S. Dietary Guidelines, due to be released later this year by the federal government, recently recommended that all adults restrict their intake of sodium to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day, equivalent to about two-thirds of a teaspoon of table salt, down from a current limit of 2,300 mgs for some people. For many, that wouldn’t represent a change. The dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years, currently suggest a limit of 1,500 mgs for people with hypertension, anyone over 40 years old and African-Americans, who are at greater risk for high blood pressure—a group that represents about 70% of all adults.
Spotting the Salt
See how much sodium is in a day’s worth of food.
Today, adults consume more than 3,400 mgs of sodium on average, not including salt they use in cooking or sprinkle on food from a shaker, more than twice the amount recommended for most people, according to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Middle-aged men are eating on average about 54% more salt today than in the early 1970s; for women, consumption has jumped 67% in that time.
The best way to reduce salt is to cut back on processed and restaurant foods, eat fresh produce, and reduce portion sizes. Nutritionists recommend eating whole grains instead of bread—a single slice of packaged bread can contain 150 mgs to 200 mgs or more of sodium. Cut back gradually, so your palate adjusts to a less salty taste.
When you do buy processed foods, look for items with less than 300 mg of sodium per serving, or no more than one milligram of sodium per calorie of food, advises the Harvard School of Public Health, which has on its website 25 sodium-reduction strategies developed with the Culinary Institute of America.
Many consumers have focused in recent years on cutting back on fat and may not have noticed that foods they think are healthier may have lots of sodium. Two tablespoons of Kraft Free Zesty Italian dressing, for example, have just 15 calories, but 480 mg of sodium. The regular Zesty Italian dressing has 60 calories and 310 mg of sodium. A Kraft spokeswoman said the differences are due to varying recipes and consumer taste preferences, and noted that the company plans to reduce sodium in more than 20 of its salad dressings by the end of 2010.
Sodium levels can also vary widely among brands, so check labels carefully. Many chefs prefer to cook with kosher or sea salt, but the sodium in these products differs little from table salt, scientists say.
Cutting sodium from the food supply is a thorny problem for food manufacturers. Sodium is an inexpensive ingredient that not only enhances flavors, but keeps packaged foods fresh longer, makes dough less sticky and keeps cheeses firmer.
But amid government pressure and consumer concern, several food companies are lowering sodium in their products. Some are gradually taking salt out—slowly enough so consumers don’t notice—or are launching new product lines that tout a reduced sodium content. Some companies are trying new technologies such as grinding salt into small particles that contact the tongue in more places. PepsiCo Inc. is developing a new salt with crystals shaped and sized in a way that reduces the amount of sodium consumers will ingest when they munch its chips.
Bodies need some sodium to function properly, including maintaining the right balance of fluids, and excess sodium is usually kept in check by the kidneys. But if the kidneys can’t eliminate enough sodium, the buildup of sodium can lead to an increase in blood volume, which in turn increases pressure in the arteries. High blood pressure, or hypertension, can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and other problems.
The Salt Institute, which represents the salt industry, opposes more restrictive guidelines on sodium in diets. It says larger studies are needed and that too little sodium can harm health. “The recommendations made really hold a lot of risk for consumers,” said Morton Satin, vice president of science and research.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Some sites for more information on salt, and how to reduce it in your diet.
- Harvard’s Nutrition Source
- Mayo Clinic
- Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Several sites from the American Heart Association:
- Sodium (Salt or Sodium Chloride)
- Consumer information on sodium – Shake Your Salt Habit
- Eat Foods Lower in Sodium
But most medical experts say nationwide dietary guidelines are warranted given the body of research demonstrating the risks of high-sodium diets. U.S. adults who reach age 50 have a 90% chance of developing hypertension, said Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and a member of an Institute of Medicine committee that has recommended that the government set mandatory standards for the amount of sodium in foods. “We’re dealing with huge public-health problems here,” he said.
The American Heart Association says it endorses a 1,500-mg sodium limit for all adults.
But just telling people to eat less salt may not be enough. The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing whether to regulate the amount of sodium allowed in foods, following a recommendation in April from the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that influences health policy. The FDA hasn’t made any final decisions on this, an agency spokeswoman said in an email.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has signed 16 companies, including Kraft Foods Inc., H.J. Heinz Co., Starbucks Corp. and sandwich chain Subway onto a voluntary salt-reduction initiative it is leading with other cities, states, and health organizations. The goal is to lower people’s salt intake by 20% by 2014.
“This is not about individual decisions. It’s about the foods we buy,” said Sonia Angell, director of the New York City health department’s cardiovascular disease prevention and control program. “It became clear we would have to address the food supply.”@2 years ago
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