HCN News & Notes

Baystate Physicians, Nutritionist Applaud FDA’s Sodium-reduction Effort

SPRINGFIELD — Put down that salt shaker!

At least, that is what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants restaurant chefs and food manufacturers to do, with the knowledge that half the money spent by Americans on food goes to restaurant food. On June 1, the FDA issued draft guidance to the food industry for voluntarily reducing sodium in processed and commercially prepared food. It is asking them to reduce the salt they add to their food products by one-third over the next decade, falling short of making their recommendations mandatory.

Their action aims to empower consumers and reduce sodium consumption to prevent premature illnesses and deaths. The goal is to cut average adult salt consumption from 3,400 milligrams a day to 2,300. The average American consumes almost 50{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} more sodium than recommended by most experts, says the FDA. However, most research suggests there is a lower limit of salt intake — at about 1,000 mg of sodium per day — below which reducing one’s salt intake does not add any health benefits.

“It is important to remember that, for the large majority of Americans, more than 80{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of their dietary sodium intake primarily comes from pre-processed foods,” said preventive cardiologist Dr. Quinn Pack of the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Medical Center. “Chances are, if you buy food in a box, package, or container, the food industry has probably added much more salt than you realize. For example, frozen chicken is soaked in salt before freezing. Most canned vegetables have been salted. Most cereals, breads, and grains already have salt in them.”

Allison Clark, a clinical dietitian at Baystate Medical Center, called the FDA’s effort “great news,” noting that “excessive consumption of sodium may cause high blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death in the United States.”

Added Pack, “avoiding excess salt is important for general health, but it is particularly important for people with high blood pressure. Reducing salt intake and eating lots of fresh food is often as strong a medicine as an actual drug for high blood pressure.”

Clark noted that, although the request to lower salt in foods is voluntary, it may be a useful marketing strategy for businesses to add appeal to their menus. “A gradual change in the sodium content over time will help with a less noticeable product transformation. When dining out, it is difficult to know the sodium content if nutrition facts are not readily available, and this may help to bring it to the spotlight.”

According to the FDA, as a food ingredient, sodium has multiple uses, such as for curing meat, baking, thickening, retaining moisture, enhancing flavor, and as a preservative. Some common food additives — like monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium nitrite, and sodium benzoate — also contain sodium.

Surprisingly, some foods that don’t taste salty can still be high in sodium, which is why using taste alone is not an accurate way to judge a food’s sodium content, say FDA officials. For example, while some foods like pickles and soy sauce are high in sodium and actually taste salty, there are also many foods like cereals and pastries that contain sodium but don’t taste salty. Also, some foods that you may eat several times a day, such as breads, can add up to a lot of sodium over the course of a day, even though an individual serving may not be high in sodium.

What’s a person to do? Clark noted several ways to reduce one’s sodium intake: invite friends over for a homemade meal rather than going out to eat as often; check food labels and omit salt when cooking; add extra vegetables (fresh, frozen, or no-added-salt canned) to a dish for a low-sodium ingredient; use lemon juice, herb blends, or fresh herbs to season foods; experiment with baked goods by reducing the salt in half, or even omitting it from a recipe; use lettuce for a wrap instead of bread or a roll; try fruit with whipped cream instead of a pastry for dessert; for breakfast, try old-fashioned or quick oats as a low-sodium option rather than instant oatmeal; and don’t forget about beverages — sports drinks and some sodas contain sodium.

“For people on a high-salt diet who are concerned that food won’t taste good, most research suggests that, if you just give it at least two weeks, your taste buds will readjust to the lower-salt diet and begin again to taste the salt that is in your food,” Pack said.

Cardiologist Dr. Heba Wassif of Baystate’s Heart & Vascular Program has yet another idea. “Why don’t grocery stores consider establishing a low-salt aisle to assist those looking for low-salt options?” she said. “It’s a good way to keep their customers and our patients healthy and out of the hospital.”

For more information on heart disease and stroke and their association with high blood pressure from too much salt, visit the Baystate Heart and Vascular Program at www.baystatehealth.org/bhvp.

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