Everything to Know About the FDA's New Guidance to Drastically Limit Salt In Food

The agency notes that the average sodium intake in the U.S. is approximately 3,400 milligrams (!!!) per day.

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In an effort to help Americans cut down on sodium intake, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just released new guidelines aiming to encourage food manufacturers, food service companies, and restaurants to lower salt levels in packaged and prepared foods nationwide. It seems the agency has been trying to set these new guidelines for several years, first proposing the changes back in 2016. Now, it appears the FDA is hoping that these voluntary guidelines will help make it easier for Americans to eat healthier on the reg.

The guidance, which was announced Wednesday by the FDA, provides specific goals for restaurants and food manufacturers to reduce the sodium levels in their products, in order to help Americans reduce their overall sodium intake. The FDA called out more than 160 types of foods (including dairy, bakery items, condiments, poultry, meats, and more) with average sodium levels that should be reduced, and by how much. This is just an incremental step; the FDA notes that in the future they "plan to issue revised, subsequent targets to further lower the sodium content incrementally and continue to help reduce sodium intake."

The FDA is pushing for these changes in the industry because Americans are drastically exceeding the recommended daily amount of sodium. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that most people age 14 and older limit their consumption to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day — but the average American is consuming a whopping 3,400 milligrams per day, according to the FDA. These recommendations also align with current guidelines from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which set the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction Intake for sodium at 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. That means the average American is taking in roughly 1,100 more milligrams than is recommended each day, which could have detrimental health effects — but more on that in a sec.

How the New Sodium Reduction Guidelines Will Help

Currently, about 70 percent of the U.S. population's sodium intake comes from processed and packaged food, in addition to meals served at restaurants, according to recent research published by the American Heart Association. That's why these new FDA guidelines — which are part of a four-step process to facilitate a gradual reduction of sodium intake in the population — target food manufacturers and restaurants themselves, encouraging them to reduce the sodium levels of their products.

For instance, for packaged white bread, the 2010 baseline sodium level (i.e. levels of sodium in each food category using food label data nutritional data) stood at 496 milligrams of sodium per 100-gram serving. The FDA's new short-term target for the category is 410 milligrams of sodium per 100-gram serving. For packaged appetizers, such as egg rolls, spring rolls, and mozzarella sticks, the 2010 baseline is 548 milligrams of sodium, with the new short-term target at 480 milligrams. Meanwhile, a McDonald's cheeseburger, for example, currently has about 720 milligrams of sodium. Based on the new guidelines illustrated by the FDA, the short-term target for a restaurant hamburger with cheese is 420 milligrams.

If you feel like your head is spinning, know that the guidelines aren't meant to necessarily be actionable steps for consumers to take — instead, the FDA hopes the food industry will use them as a jumping-off point, making it easier and simpler for people to lower their salt intake.

And these guidelines demonstrate an important shift because it doesn't focus on consumer behavior but rather on pushing the industry to offer healthier foods to customers. The FDA's acting commissioner, Janet Woodcock, M.D., told NPR that people can't drastically reduce their sodium levels on their own because it's in the foods they buy. Therefore, it's unrealistic to expect massive behavior change in the population, when people don't have control over the sodium levels in packaged or prepared foods.

And if you're feeling ashamed of using packaged foods or adding salt to your meals, fear not. There's no reason you can't include packaged ingredients (or a plate of cheese fries with your pals) as part of a nutritionally diverse diet, says Andy Mathis, R.D., a partner with Nurish by Nature Made, which provides monthly subscriptions of personalized vitamins.

"The new guidelines presented by the FDA seem to come from a place of concern with the goal of reducing the risk of heart disease," explains Mathis. "If restaurants and food manufacturers adhere to these guidelines, the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke may decrease — preserving the health of most individuals."

Essentially, it's great news if these guidelines are implemented on a wide scale because the food most folks eat would be healthier. Mathis also points out that "a diet high in sodium can raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke." "When we take in too much sodium, the body holds onto water in an attempt to dilute the sodium," she says. "This causes an increase in the amount of fluid surrounding cells and the volume of blood in the bloodstream, which means more work for the heart and more pressure on blood vessels."

"Studies show that the increase of sodium intake in recent decades may be related to the increased consumption of packaged foods," adds Mathis. "Consuming packaged foods is not a bad thing — they often come in handy when you're short on time and they can easily fit into most household budgets. And there are several nutritious foods that come in a pre-packaged form. If food manufacturers can make it a priority to reduce the sodium in these foods, I think we can expect to see a decrease in sodium intake in the future."

What to Know About Your Own Salt Intake

While that all sounds pretty alarming, Mathis emphasizes that reducing your sodium intake doesn't have to be hard. "You can start by gradually cutting back the amount of salt that you add to your food and try to introduce new flavor enhancers such as herbs and spices," she says. "Spices, herbs, and/or a combination of fruits/vegetables can provide an abundance of flavor without increasing sodium levels. You can also try to look for low-sodium or no-added-salt options when purchasing canned or packaged foods."

If you're unsure about whether or not you're currently taking in too much salt, Mathis shared a few signs that might be worth checking in with your doctor if you notice them. "Bloating in certain areas such as the hands and ankles, persistent thirst, frequent headaches, and frequent urination" can all be symptoms of excess salt intake, she notes, so if you have any concerns at all, your doctor or a registered dietician/nutritionist can help steer you in the right direction.

Mathis is also hopeful these changes will only help to benefit Americans in the long term. "Once the food industry becomes aware of the health risks associated with increased salt intake, I feel confident that they will try to implement these changes — assuming the priority is the health of their consumers."

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