Most of us consume waaaaay too much sodium, with salt (sodium chloride) being the most common form. That can be a serious health hazard, because excess sodium consumption contributes to the development and escalation of high blood pressure, a leading cause of heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.
Research shows that we consume on average about 3,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium every day. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a reduction of sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg daily.
And those age 51 and older, and people of any age who are black or have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should further reduce sodium intake to 1,500 mg daily. This amount meets your essential need for sodium. These populations make up about half the U.S. Population.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that children and adolescents consume about the same amount of sodium as adults and also risk developing high blood pressure. The researchers found that kids who consumed the most sodium faced double the risk of having high blood pressure, compared with those who took in less sodium. For overweight or obese children, the risk was more than triple.
“There has been a common misconception that sodium intake is just a concern for people with high blood pressure,” says Jessica Leighton, Ph.D., MPH, senior advisor for science in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine. “But it’s a health risk for all people, including children, as the CDC report shows.”
FDA is working on a number of fronts to help consumers manage their sodium intake.
Seeking a gradual reduction
FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are collaborating to identify ways that sodium can be reduced in foods sold in the nation’s marketplaces and restaurants.
“Approximately 75% of the total sodium intake for most individuals comes not from people adding salt to their food but from packaged and restaurant foods,” says Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “That makes it very difficult for consumers to reduce their sodium intake with the foods currently available to them in the marketplace.”
This reality makes it “very, very difficult” for consumers to meet the sodium levels established by the Dietary Guidelines, says Jeremiah Fasano, Ph.D., consumer safety officer at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Sodium is ubiquitous in packaged and restaurant foods.”
FDA and USDA are looking for ways to promote gradual, achievable and sustainable reduction of sodium intake. The agencies have sought data, evidence and comments from the food industry, consumer groups and health care professionals on reducing sodium levels in foods, as well as on current and emerging approaches to promoting sodium reduction. This input is currently under review.
“This is not about depriving anyone of their salt shaker. It's about creating more opportunities for everyone to actively choose how much sodium they take in,” says Fasano.
What’s a consumer to do?
When shopping for food, consumers can read food labels and choose foods that are lower in sodium.
The Nutrition Facts Label on food and beverage packages lists the “Percent Daily Value (%DV)” of sodium in one serving of a food, based on 2,400 mg per day. The %DV tells you whether a food contributes a little or a lot to your total daily diet. Foods providing 5%DV or less of sodium per serving are considered low in sodium and foods providing 20%DV or more of sodium per serving are considered high. But remember, all of the nutrition information on the label is based upon one serving of the food and many packaged foods have more than one serving.
It is recommended that consumers not exceed 100% of the daily value for sodium and those advised to limit intake to 1,500 mg per day should aim for about 65% of the daily value.
Consumers can also be aware of the sources of sodium in their diet. In a report issued in February 2012, CDC identified these 10 foods as the greatest sources of sodium:
- breads and rolls
- luncheon meat, such as deli ham or turkey
- poultry, fresh and processed -- (Much of the raw chicken bought from a store has been injected with a sodium solution.)
- cheeseburgers and other sandwiches
- cheese, natural and processed
- pasta dishes
- meat dishes, such as meat loaf with gravy
- savory snack foods, such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn
And how do you know how much sodium is in the food served at your favorite restaurant? Fasano notes that many chain restaurants are putting the nutritional content of their foods -- including calories, fats, sodium and sugars -- on their Websites, or it’s available by asking for it.
FDA has also created a number of online resources to help consumers reduce their sodium intake. They include:
- A Sodium Education Website offers consumer advice on how to use the Nutrition Facts Label to reduce sodium intake.
- The Spot the Block campaign challenges tweens from 9 to 13 to use the Nutrition Facts Label (the "block") to make healthy food choices.