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FDA Guidelines Target The Sodium Hiding In Our Diets

These sandwiches may look the same, but the one on the left has a total of 1,522 milligrams of salt (per whole sandwich), while the other one has 852 mg. Most of the salt we consume is already in our food before it reaches the table.
These sandwiches may look the same, but the one on the left has a total of 1,522 milligrams of salt (per whole sandwich), while the other one has 852 mg. Most of the salt we consume is already in our food before it reaches the table.

The Food and Drug Administration is leaning on the food industry to cut back on the amount of sodium added to processed and prepared foods.

The FDA on Wednesday released a draft of new sodium-reduction targets for dozens of categories of foods — from bakery goods to soups.

You might be surprised to learn just how much salt is in your food. For instance, how about that turkey sandwich you just ate for lunch? It contains more sodium than you might think (check out the graphic above). Bread is one of the stealth contributors of sodium in our diet. Deli meats are also on the American Heart Association's Salty Six list.

Too much salt can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, as many research studies have demonstrated. "Experts at the Institute of Medicine have concluded that reducing sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day can significantly help Americans reduce their blood pressure and ultimately prevent hundreds of thousands of premature illnesses and deaths," Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement.

The FDA says the goal is to reduce Americans' salt consumption over the next decade to 2,300 mg a day. Currently, Americans consume a lot more on average — about 3,400 mg a day (that's about a teaspoon and a half). The vast majority of our sodium intake — about 75 percent — comes not from the salt shaker, but from processed and restaurant foods, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Slashing the average sodium intake by just 400 mg per day could potentially prevent as many as 28,000 deaths annually, according to an op-ed by CDC Director Thomas Frieden and colleagues that was published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Still, reducing the sodium in the foods we eat will clearly be a long process. As far back as 2007, the FDA has been considering limits on salt in processed foods. The proposed FDA targets on the table now are voluntary, meaning food companies will not be forced to make any changes. The FDA's Mayne says the agency hopes to engage the industry in a dialogue on how best to move forward.

"Many Americans want to reduce sodium in their diets, but that's hard to do when much of it is in everyday products we buy in stores and restaurants," Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement announcing the draft targets.

A few leading food companies have already announced support for the FDA's sodium-reduction efforts. For instance, Nestle — which owns many popular brands, from DiGiorno pizza to Lean Cuisine frozen meals — says it welcomes the FDA's sodium guidance for industry.

"What we commit to is to ... invest further — through our research and development — to reduce [sodium]," Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke told us in a recent interview. For example, Nestle has reduced the salt in its DiGiorno brand pizzas by an average of 11 percent. The reformulated pizzas were able to maintain the crust "flavor, texture and shelf life that had made them popular," explains a Nestle spokesperson.

Mars Inc. has made a similar statement of support for the FDA efforts. "FDA's release of draft sodium-reduction targets will help us further support healthier options for consumers and promote additional participation by all food manufacturers," reads a statement by Mars. Mars Food, a unit that sells products including Seeds of Change sauces and Uncle Ben's rice, says it will reduce sodium by an average of 20 percent across its food portfolio by 2021.

Since eating habits begin in childhood, some experts say it's important to focus on the early years. As we've reported, kids in the U.S. consume about as much sodium as adults.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement of support for the FDA's new draft targets.

"Although voluntary not mandatory, the Academy welcomes this practical step to improve the quality of Americans' diets and ultimately, the health of children and urges industry to work to achieve the proposed reductions in the draft guidance without delay," wrote Dr. Benard Dreyer, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.