In June 2016, the FDA released draft guidelines that set voluntary targets for food companies and chain restaurants to gradually reduce sodium in their products over the next decade. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, along with most medical and public health organizations, recommend a daily limit of 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day (the amount in a teaspoon of salt). But the average American consumes nearly 50 percent more than that—about 3,400 milligrams a day. Here are some facts:
- About 75 percent of U.S. sodium intake comes from processed or commercially prepared foods, not the salt shaker, which is why the guidelines are important.
- “There is incontrovertible evidence of a direct, dose-response relationship between sodium and blood pressure,” according to Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2016. That is, research clearly shows that when people reduce sodium, blood pressure drops, on average—especially in those who already have elevated blood pressure or are “salt-sensitive” (meaning that their blood pressure is more responsive to sodium intake). One in three Americans has high blood pressure, which is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke.
- Reducing average sodium intake by just 400 milligrams a day could prevent 32,000 heart attacks and 20,000 strokes every year in the U.S., according to estimates cited by Dr. Frieden. Lowering sodium by 1,200 milligrams a day (that is, to just below the recommended maximum) would reduce the number of Americans with hypertension by nearly 11 million. This could prevent as many as half a million premature deaths over a decade and save nearly $100 billion in health care costs, researchers have estimated.
- Studies show that people who cut down on salt actually change their taste preference, so consumers will get used to lower sodium levels in their favorite foods.
- Different brands of the same food contain very different sodium levels, and the same brand sold in different countries may be formulated with widely varying sodium content. So, clearly, it’s feasible for companies to reduce sodium. Some major companies have already started to use less sodium.
- The U.K. shows it can be done. It set voluntary sodium targets in 2003, and by 2011 average intake dropped by 560 milligrams (15 percent), leading to a modest but clinically significant reduction in average blood pressure. At the same time, deaths from heart attacks and strokes fell by 40 percent, and salt reduction is likely to have played a role in this improvement, according to a study in BMJ Open in 2014.