Salt is an acquired taste and unfortunately too many of us have acquired it. Many people ask why there is so much sodium in restaurant foods and are learning that reducing salt intake is easier said than done.
Salt also known as sodium chloride has been used for generations in baked goods as a leavening and browning agent as well as assisting with product texture, structure and enhanced "mouth feel." It has seen increased use over the decades by food manufactures that utilize it as a cost effective option to extend product shelf life due to its preservative properties. One reason we may have seen more high fructose corn syrup used in shelf stable products such as breads and crackers over the years could be that it hides the unfavorable salty taste created by increased sodium-based additives used to reduce product waste from spoilage. The longer a product can safely sit on a shelf, the less loss for the company.
Last week it was reported that the FDA will begin working with the food industry and health experts to reduce processed sodium content in packaged foods over the next ten years. Here is why this may be a positive step forward.
Food Industry Focus - It is great that the first step in this salt reduction process focuses on changes from the food companies and not from restricting product availability or consumer choice. This is especially true since estimates suggest 77% or more of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods compared to the 12% sodium that is naturally occurring. Salt is "generally recognized as safe" under federal standards so manufactures are not limited regarding how much they can use in food production. They are only regulated to accurately report the amount of sodium per serving on nutrition labels. The food industry has been awaiting federal initiatives so Conagra, Pepsico, Kraft Foods, General Mills, and Sara Lee recently announced voluntary sodium reduction plans for their products.
FDA Backed Accountability - The Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned the FDA back in the early 1980's to regulate sodium content in foods. Although the CSPI has also shared apprehension about nearly 90 other food related issues over the years, they have been the push behind the sodium concerns in processed foods for years. In 2005, CSPI urged Congress to create a new FDA division to encourage food companies to reduce their salt content. The FDA regulates the majority of processed foods but year after year kicks the can down the road on this issue by pushing for voluntary reduction from the food industry without enforceable government backing. Perhaps with the potential of creating legal limits related to salt allowances, voluntary efforts from industry will be extremely cooperative this time around.
Improved Health Benefits with Limited Increased Efforts - The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends we consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium each day. For specific population groups such as those with hypertension, blacks, the middle-aged, and older adults, the recommendation is to limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day while also consuming 4,700 mg of potassium per day. The correlation between salt intake and blood pressure are direct and the higher a person's blood pressure the higher the risks of stroke, heart disease, heart failure, and kidney disease. If manufactures reduce sodium content in processed foods, sodium content in diets will come down as well especially in those that find processed foods difficult to remove from their diets. While the message of reducing processed food consumption will continue, small hidden reductions of sodium in processed foods will help improve health more quickly as new habits are learned.
Reducing sodium can reduce disease and improve health. If your favorite products are still available on store shelves, provide a great taste for a fair price, and provide less sodium, we all benefit. This is frequently called "stealth health" or creating change and health benefits with minimal consumer impact or reduction in choice. It is unclear how fast we will see changes on our store shelves but indications suggest it may be sooner than later.
What do you think - Will these FDA initiated voluntary steps work this time? Is a 10-year plan reasonable?