Americans consume nearly 3,400 mg of sodium per day on average, which is almost 50% more than the recommended 2,300 mg limit set by federal guidelines for people aged 14 and older.
“High sodium, especially when coupled with low intake of potassium due to inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables, in some individuals is associated with increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease,” Julie Miller Jones, PhD, an emeritus professor of nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., and a member of the Grain Foods Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, tells Food Quality & Safety.
FDA sees this as a major problem, which is why it has unleashed a new set of guidelines designed to encourage the food industry to gradually reduce sodium in a wide range of foods over the next 2.5 years, with the goal of an overall 12% reduction.
“Americans are consuming too much sodium in their diet, and the majority comes from processed, packaged, and prepared foods, not the salt shaker,” said acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Director Susan Mayne, in a statement. “To gradually reduce sodium across the food supply, the FDA is taking an iterative approach that includes establishing voluntary sodium targets for industry, monitoring and evaluating progress, and engaging with stakeholders.”
The guidelines have been in the works for years, with the recommendations pending since 2016. A list of 163 categories of food products in which salt can be reduced was offered by FDA; the list ranged from condiments to potato chips and deli meats to store-bought bakery items.
Tia Rains, PhD, vice president of customer engagement and strategic development at Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition North America, Inc., a food and beverage manufacturer headquartered in Itasca, Ill., notes that, for decades, public health institutions have recommended that people lower their sodium intake, and yet there has been no improvement, based on population data. “About 70% of sodium in Americans’ diets comes from sodium that is added to packaged foods and food prepared by restaurants,” she says. “Excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, which are among the leading causes of death in the U.S. Based on current scientific evidence, a reduction in sodium intake will help mitigate the risk of these health conditions and help improve general wellness among the U.S. population.”
Even before the new guidelines, processors have been trying to reduce sodium because guidelines over the last 20 years have been concerned about the ingredient. The most common food and beverage industry strategies have been reformulating, developing target goals, and trying to meet front-of-pack labeling goals. The industry has also tried monitoring and consumer education, in addition to menu labeling.
Given FDA’s new guidance, Dr. Rains anticipates growing interest among food processors in materials and ingredients that contribute to lower sodium levels in food applications that are cost effective and don’t impact taste. “A largely unexplored solution for reducing sodium is the use of glutamates, like monosodium glutamate (MSG),” she said. “Even though MSG has ‘sodium’ in its name, it actually has 2/3 less sodium than table salt, and, when used in the place of some salt, it can significantly lower the sodium content of a dish or product—in some cases up to 50% in packaged foods and snacks—without compromising taste.”
MSG also provides umami, a savory taste that allows foods to be delicious with less sodium. The seasoning has even been recognized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as a tool to reduce sodium in the food supply.