Even if you don’t add salt to your food, chances are you are still getting well over the recommended daily limit of sodium from your daily diet.
Processed foods and prepared ingredients are normally loaded with salt. So unless your meals come straight from the farm or garden, the food you’re eating every day could be laying the groundwork for some serious health problems.
The Dangers Of Consuming Too Much Salt
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is a link between salt, high blood pressure, and heart disease—the leading killer of American men and women. The body needs a small amount of sodium to function normally. But the high sodium content in American food means that most Americans are consuming way too much on a daily basis.
“High sodium consumption can raise blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke,” the CDC warns. “Most of the sodium we consume is in the form of salt.”
A Look At The Recommended Daily Limit
The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the Department of Agriculture recommend that we consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day as part of a healthy diet.
However, approximately 90% of Americans who are two years or older consume more than the recommendation. The research shows that the average American is consuming more than 3,400 mg of sodium on a daily basis.
The data also shows that about 70% of the sodium we consume is from processed and restaurant foods. Just a small portion comes from the salt used in cooking or added at the table. In other words, the food industry is making it extremely difficult to keep the sodium levels low. No matter what you eat.
The Worst Culprits May Surprise You
Even when you think you are eating healthy, you could be consuming way too much sodium. According to Dr. Stephen Juraschek—an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who researches sodium and hypertension—most of his patients don’t realize how much salt is in “healthy” food options.
“I’ve found salad dressings where a single serving (2 tablespoons) had over 23 percent of one’s daily value in sodium,” Dr. Juraschek explained to CNN. “Most of my patients do not add salt at the dinner table, but don’t realize that bread rolls, canned vegetables, and chicken breasts are among the worst culprits in the US.”
Dr. Janet Woodcock—acting commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—said in a media briefing that hidden sources of sodium are hidden everywhere in our diets.
“Who would think bread? And yet bread is one of the highest sources of sodium that people are getting,” Woodcock told CNN. “The problem is that it’s so cumulative: the tomato sauce, the peas, the bread, the salad dressing. Pretty soon your whole meal has hidden salt in it, and it’s really hard right now for people to manage that on their own.”
The FDA Sets New Salt Guidelines
Because the sodium levels in processed and prepared food are so high, Woodcock and her team at the FDA recently announced new voluntary guidelines. The goal is to reduce the sodium levels in 163 categories of “the most consumed processed, packaged, and prepared foods.”
“The targets seek to decrease average sodium intake from approximately 3,400 milligrams (mg) to 3,000 mg per day, about a 12% reduction, over the next 2.5 years,” the FDA said in a statement announcing the new guidelines.
Is It Low Enough?
The top takeaway from the announcement is that the new guidelines are still much higher than the recommendations set by the federal nutritional guidelines and the American Heart Association (AHA).
In addition to the 2,300 mg recommended daily intake for average adults, the guideline for people at high risk of hypertension is only 1,500 mg. The AHA says that the new guidelines from the FDA are a “step forward.” However, the 3,000 mg/day target that they set for food manufacturers wasn’t low enough.
“Lowering sodium further to 2,300 mg could prevent an estimated 450,000 cases of cardiovascular disease, gain two million quality-adjusted life years and save approximately $40 billion in health-care costs over a 20-year period,” the AHA said in a statement.
Woodcock explained the FDA opted for the higher level of 3,000 mg so that people could wean themselves over time from foods with a higher salt content.
The Experts Are Skeptical
Despite the good intentions of the new FDA guidelines, experts aren’t convinced that they will do any good.
“The first issue is that this is voluntary. Food companies don’t have to pay any attention to it at all,” nutrition researcher Marion Nestle—author of Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat—told CNN.
Dr. Juraschek noted that it’s not clear that voluntary recommendations are helpful. He pointed to the FDA’s call to action back in 2016 for food manufacturers to reduce sodium levels.
“I don’t think the manufacturers I’ve spoken with inherently like the idea of harming people, but when faced with the expense of discontinuing a product or changing industrial processes, I think a voluntary mandate may not provide enough activation energy to make a difference,” he said.
Instead, Dr. Juraschek thinks that change shouldn’t be delayed. He would like to see the FDA and other government agencies be more aggressive in providing mandatory limits on the levels of salt in food. He would also like to see more transparent warning labels on packaging.
It’s Up To You
When it comes down to it, being aware of your daily salt intake is up to you. Reading nutrition labels and understanding sodium levels is the responsibility of the consumer. The public can also help encourage food companies to make these much-needed changes without government mandates by speaking out.