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Americans Can't Quit Salt, So the FDA Wants Companies to Stop Making Salty Food

Seriously, we eat a lot of salt.
June 1, 2016, 4:50pm

Salt is the not-so-secret ingredient in everything good, from bacon to brownies. But it's also one of our biggest dietary vices: on average, we consume nearly 50 percent more than the recommended daily limit.

Since we're all failing miserably at limiting our own salt intake, the Food and Drug Administration is now asking food companies to limit it for us. On Wednesday, the agency released a draft of voluntary reduction goals for sodium content for all food products, broken down by 150 categories that get as specific as feta cheese (no more than 1,340 mg of sodium per 100g of feta, please) and sauerkraut (640 mg/100g).

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Of all the ways we fail to meet the science-based nutrition guidelines laid out by the government, our overconsumption of sodium may be the worst, with close to 90 percent of Americans consuming above the maximum recommended daily sodium limit. (In fact, we should probably aim to consume below that upper limit most days.) The government recommends we consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but the average American consumes 3,400 milligrams.

Image: 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

That overconsumption has very real consequences, with high sodium intake linked to health problems like hypertension and heart disease. Even more troubling is that these health issues are increasingly affecting children.

But we know this. We read about it all the time in the news, and yet on the whole, Americans are not eating any less salt. There are products on the market that have lower sodium levels—and it's been listed on everything for decades—but we're not consistently choosing them. So the FDA is now asking if food producers will please put less salt in all their products, so no matter what choice we make, our sodium consumption will start to drop.

"Consumers may not even notice it. The levels will be gradually coming down in the foods that they love and have always preferred," said Susan Mayne, the director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, during a press conference. "This is kind of making a healthier default without the consumer necessarily having to make that choice."

It may not be that we're all just being lazy and ignorant about our salt consumption (though I'm sure some of us are). Hypertension and other heart diseases disproportionately affect lower income individuals, who also tend to have diets higher in salty, processed foods. It's understandable that if you're working three jobs to make ends meet and finally have time to get to the grocery store, you might have to pay more attention to the price tag on a particular product than to the sodium level.

The good news is that even though these are voluntary limits, this kind of effort has had some success in other countries. Five years after the UK's Food Standards Agency released similar voluntary limits, the average crude sodium content of UK foods dropped by 26 mg per 100g, a 7 percent reduction. It's not anywhere near the 32 percent drop we'd need to see to get the average American in line with the recommended limits, but it's a start.